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Objects in the Mirror are Closer than they Appear

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Garak knows what normal space turbulence feels like, after so many years and so many ships, and this, he is sure, is not a normal one. To make things worse, instruments show nothing. As if the ship was not shaking wildly. Everything is calm and normal, according to their small runabout.

“Julian, are you sure chief O’Brien was sober when he checked this ship?”

Julian rolls his eyes and checks again on his console. Another violent movement almost throws them against a wall. Still all the instruments show is that space is clear, no meteorites, weird matter occurrences or anything around them.

“Yes, if having 3 raktajinos to keep from falling asleep can be considered being sober.”

“Then, are you sure he was not trying to have you killed?”

“I doubt anybody on the station would want to play darts and the Alamo program as much as I do, so yes, I’d imagine he won’t kill me just yet.”

“The only other option is that he wanted to kill me and you are collateral damage.”

Julian grabs the console and puts his hands on it to stop his head from hitting the panel when another movement sends them forward and then backward. He hears a groan. Garak was not that fast and is now grabbing his face where it hit. Julian sees a small streak of blood between the fingers.

“Here, let me see, Elim.”

“I’m ok.”

“No, you are not, you are bleeding.”

Garak tries to chase him away but then freezes. Julian decides not to ask for the cause of that, because he knows that as soon as the shock recedes, he’ll go back to his bad patient mode. Instead, he works fast in fixing his bleeding nose and broken lip.

“I think we have worse problems than that. Such as, I’m not sure where we are anymore.”

The panels still show nothing, but in front of them floats a station of unknown design. It reminds them of old Federation architecture, but something is off.

“Ever seen anything like it?” Garak resigns himself to being treated while he searches the database. No matches. Then again, he won’t trust the computer of this particular runabout until he has a bit of a chat with the chief engineer.

“No, but history is not my strongest point, either. And this looks old.” Julian gives his nose the finishing touches and runs a tricorder to make sure there’s nothing more to fix.

A small sound on the back alerts them, and then the computer finally decides to acknowledge maybe something is wrong.

“Warning. Plasma leak. Explosion in 10 minutes.”

“Well, dear, whoever the owners of that station are, I hope they will be willing to welcome us. Go grab our bags and let’s beam inside before our trip is cut even shorter.”

 

They transport just in time to the station. From one window they see their small vessel explode. So much for a vacation on Risa.

The corridors are mostly empty, and the station looks like it is almost abandoned. Clean, but with low lighting and no noises. More and more, the architecture seems alien to them. It is federation but not just that. There’s something more.

“It reminds me a little of the old K stations. Ever been to one, Elim?”

“No, and looking around, I could say luckily, as well. This is not exactly an example of the combination of beauty and functionality.”

“Perhaps, but it fulfills its purpose.”

They both turn around at the sound of a human voice. Garak can’t believe somebody sneaked on him. Is he getting old and stupid, or that person is exceptional? Not many beings can do that to him. Julian’s eyes open wildly.

“Sarina?”

She smiles and leans on the wall, almost seductively. Something is off. Maybe she’s a founder?

“Don’t act surprised, Jules. Why are you with the professor?”

“What? Sarina, did they do to something to you? You... talk?”

“Is this a joke or something? Of course I talk.” She gets to his side and caresses his cheek. She is so close he flinches. She lets out a dark chuckle. “You know, Jules, one day I’ll convince you to kiss me.”

Garak taps on Julian’s back in a hurry. Morse code. Play along. He gulps but smiles and takes her wrist.

“Maybe, but not today.”

“I can live with that”. She backs up a little, still a devilish smile. “So, back to our quarters, Jules?”

“Sorry, dear, I think Jules got a little lost and that’s how I ran into him. Why don’t you lead the way?”

Julian taps on Garak’s hand. Sarina’s catatonic. Something is wrong.

Changelings, perhaps?

Think so. Or something else.

“Hey, stop touching each other, or professor Parmak will be jealous.” Sarina turns her head to look at them with a crooked smile. Garak’s expression doesn’t change, but his scales get pale.

“Of course, dear. I was just trying to reassure him.”

“I’m sure you were. Don’t worry, I won’t sell you out. At least now I know where does Jules go at night.”

She inputs a code for a door and opens it. And then, inside the room, another Julian looks at them with surprise, his hands around a mangled teddy bear.

Chapter Text

“So... not Jules, I guess.” Sarina looks at them curiously. She seems only mildly surprised, as if finding a doppelganger of her friend is a normal thing. Maybe it is.

Julian looks like a deer caught in the lights, while Garak still has his placid service face. Jules looks at them curiously, and the others are just there, waiting. They seem almost like they are enjoying the show.

“You don’t seem surprised, Sarina.” Garak decides to play along for as long as he can.

“We already calculated the possibility of parallel universes and duplicates of ourselves to be over 99,9999%”, says Jules, looking at them with wide eyes. He shrugs and gets back to his pad. “It was a boring afternoon, we had no more research to do.”

“You have no proof we are duplicates. For all you know, I could be your twin brother.”

“Jules... ehm, second Jules”, Patrick looks at him beatifically, “if there was any doubt, the fact that you said ‘we’ sort of cleared it out. That’s not Doctor Garak, is it?”

“You have no proof I am or I am not.” Garak smiles and hopes his double has the same expression he has when he wants to be obscure.

Sarina gets as close to him as she did with Julian. Garak has to force himself to stay still.

“Mmm, he does smell the same. But, he is not. Professor Garak would never allow me to get this close.”

“Then how do you know how I smell, dear?”

“Because I get close anyway.” She laughs and spins and falls into the bed. Jack yelps a bit and moves away, salvaging his pads before she crushes them.

“So, how did you cross? Are you called Jules too? Was the professor moving you to another facility?” Jules wants to know everything about him.

“I’m... I’m Julian. I don’t really know if we cross... facility?”

"Mmmm, such a disappointment. I hoped Jules had a twin". Sarina almost purrs and grabs his arm. He’s really getting nervous at this Sarina. Her energy seems infinite. Meanwhile, Lauren is sitting in a corner, idly tending to her nails. She blows lightly for the nail polishing to dry, before getting up with catlike grace.

“Oh - umm. No!” And Julian flushes a bit again and takes a step back towards Garak. “Garak here is my... he’s with me..”

Julian’s bag is sliding down his arm a bit. Garak taps urgently in his back again. Don’t give information .

But we need to know, Elim.

“Why are you all here? Oh, and can I... can I see what you are reading, Jules?” Julian tries to get out of Sarina’s reach.

Julian gets closer to Jules and Garak follows him.

“Not reading. I’m trying to calculate the rate of reproduction of the anaerobic bacteria of Cigny V, so maybe they can be used for yeast.”

We, not them. Be careful, Julian.

I know them.

We know them on the other side, Julian. Not here.

“Don’t you calculate in your Institute?”

“I... yes, I calculate, of course I do. I’m just not sure we are doing the same things, Jules.”

We need them to trust us, Elim. They are our way out.

We need to hide. There’s another me here.

Garak lets out a sigh. Convincing Julian not to give all the information freely is nightmare. And to think he fancies himself as a spy.

Julian sits near Jules and something catches his eye. Kukalaka is sitting there, its head on Jules’ lap. His doppelganger follows his eyes and then keeps on researching.

“Want to hold him?”

“What?”

“Kukalaka. I’m sure you miss him.”

“No, I... you are missing a divider there. The outcome is wrong on that equation!”

Jules starts to argue but then realizes Julian is right and corrects the calculations. They soon start arguing and inputting values in the pad. So much for being discreet and not interfering. Garak looks at them and shudders. One Julian is sometimes too much, double Julian will be a disaster. They already have more information than he’d like them to.

“Sarina, dear, could you tell us where we could rest until we can go out of here?”

“Why would you want to leave?” She takes his arm and rubs her head on it, like a cat.

“It’s not safe outside. It would be better if you stayed with us”. Patrick says from the other side of the room.

Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. She seems to already have taken a liking to them. And now the other woman is circling him as well.

“It is a secret. But I may tell you if you show us to a vessel to leave this place.”

The girls look at each other. Garak idly wonders if they are telepathic. At this point he would not be surprised.

“We don’t believe you.” Lauren crosses her arms.

“But we think you could rest here for the night.“ Sarina smiles brightly at him.

Both Julians rise their heads.

“We could finish the calculations then!” Jules is happy but Julian is alarmed. He’s starting to realize maybe this situation is a lot worse than he assessed at first.

“Julian, dear, come here one second.” Garak is really getting worried. “We need to stop interacting and get out of here.”

“Go where? We have no runabout. Befriending them is the only way to get them to help us escape.”

“Still. At least let’s try to sleep and see what we do next. Whoever the Professor is, I don’t want to cross paths with him. I’m not sure any instance of myself in any universe will be a nice person.”

Jack approaches them and tugs at Julian’s sleeve. When he turns, Jack promptly looks at the floor.

“What is it, Jack?”

“You know my name?” He seems delighted.

“Yes, of course I do.”

“I don’t... I didn’t think I was that memorable.” He looks down again. “We... we prepared a bit of a space for you to sleep in a room next door. Jules will... he will show you the place.”

“That’s so kind of you, Jack, Thank you.”

Jack smiles as if he’d done the most amazing thing and goes back to his corner.

 

Julian spies on Jules while he prepares the room, waiting for him to act wildly differently than him, but he’s mostly acting the same. After what he saw with the other four, he’s sure soon he’ll find a divergence. Maybe he seems to be carrying Kukalaka around where more people can see him, but it’s not like he could keep a bear secret anyway, considering how small their facilities are. He talks animatedly and seems more centered than the other four. When he is sure they are comfortable and have pads in case they want to research something, he leaves, closing the door.

“He really is like you, my dear. Now I have two Julians. I don’t know if you should be jealous or not.” He raises an eyeridge, gives him a light kiss, and then turns again, searching for a way out of the room.

“That’s not funny!”

“I believe it is. But really, he could be your brother.”

“We are not so alike. Maybe... maybe he wasn’t raised here, Elim! Maybe he only recently got caught. That’s why he is not like the others. But then, I can tell all the ways he is not like me.”

"I think he is just you, Julian."

“That’s ridiculous, Elim. If he were me, he wouldn’t have been caught at all.” Julian flops on the bed, frustrated.

"May I remind you section 31 captured you several times? so did the Dominion. And then the..."

"No, don't remind me". Garak shrugs. Julian looks at his back, still glowering. “But not the Institute. And they wouldn’t take an adult anyway. They would have put me in an actual jail.”

“So your theory about them finding him recently falls apart. He must have been found out as a child.”

“Perhaps. That’s why I’m watching to see what’s different to him from me. He carries Kukalaka with him everywhere and he talks more.”

"Dear, you'd take yours to away missions if you could."

Silence. Garak looks at Julian, who seems embarrassed.

“You do, don’t you.”

“... I often do, I just hide her in my bag under my dress uniform. It wouldn’t do to have captains discovering I have a stuffed animal.”

“So if it wasn’t socially not acceptable, would you carry her around like that?”

"That's not the point." Julian flushes furiously, not even bothering to point out that he most certainly would not. "At least I know what is socially acceptable."

“Yes, because you didn’t grow up here. And you do talk that much, dear.”

"I know better what kind of things are not acceptable to say."

"Do you."

“What is that supposed to mean?”

And that’s when Lauren pops her head in the room.

“You forgot your bag. And the guys are trying to see what a traveler from another universe carries with him.”

“No! Kukalaka!”

Julian sprints to the other room and Garak rolls his eyes. So much for being more socially aware.

Patrick is already peeking into Julian’s bag and finds an ugly shirt and then underneath, Kukalaka, who he pulls out triumphantly.

“Look, this Jules has a Kukalaka too!”

Julian is terrified his Kukalaka could be lost in that universe so he snatches her back. He hugs Kukalaka to his chest and then winces because he expects Patrick to start crying. He’s halfway to apologizing when he realizes there’s no sound. This Patrick is quiet, and seems at peace. He nods and takes a step back.

“I’m sorry, Jules... I mean, Julian. I forgot how you get when somebody touches your bear.”

Julian kind of blinks at that and thanks Patrick.

“I - this is so strange. Sorry! Just I’ve met you all in my universe too, but. Differently.”

Jules gets up and looks at him. Garak is trying desperately to get Julian to go back to the room, but it is too late. He is talking again. Are they really so bored they have nothing better to do than interrogate Julian?

“Where you’re from, Garak isn’t your teacher, is he?”

“No, he’s a spy ... tful tailor.”

"Spitful? Spiteful?" Jules looks at him with curiosity. Does that mean he spits a lot? or that he does things in spite of himself? he's not sure if it is ok to ask or not. All his life he's been told to shut his mouth after all.

“Closer to the latter, but also in spite of me.” Julian frowns and then starts explaining about Garak being a tailor, and before that being a gardener. He guesses as long as he doesn’t give too much personal information it will be ok. He’s not sure what is ok to say and what is not, at this point.

“I don’t understand”. Jules frowns.

“It’s like watching a mirror. I guess some people can’t change even if they are in another universe.” Lauren is amused.

Julian looks at them, all so eager to get at least a bit of information.

“You’re all - you’re all different, though. I suppose that explains why I am too.”

“How are we different?” Sarina asks while she buzzes around the room.

"For starters you are quiet and calm. You don’t talk, in fact."

“So, I am boring.” She laughs and jumps on the bed.

"Patrick cries a lot and Jack is the energetic and abrasive one."

“I can’t imagine myself crying. And Jack is the quietest man I’ve ever met.”

Jack looks at the floor, embarrassed. He mutters, apologizing about himself from the other universe.

“Lauren is overly flirtatious and playful.”

“That one’s mostly the same, although I am worse than her.” Sarina is still jumping.

"But you are mostly the same, love", Garak tuts from the door. He’s resigned himself to just not keeping information out of the pack hands. Or brains. Or whatever.

“I am not!” Julian huffs in an annoyed voice and with a quick eye roll - and then realizes that’s not helping his point. “We don’t have enough data to know that yet, I mean. All we know so far is we both have a Kukalaka.”

And then they hear the door open, and Garak has just enough time to push Julian inside a closet with him before his double appears in the door, wearing simple and plain clothes befitting more a librarian than a doctor, hands before him, index finger missing from the right one, beatific smile on his face.

Chapter Text

It’s not a great hiding spot, but it’s the closest thing they have. There was no time to get back to the other room, after all. They are squeezed tight inside the small closet and Garak has to remind himself he can't start having an attack. Julian is trying to comfort him without using words. Garak feels his scales getting hot and his breath coming out more and more raggedly.

Everyone else is trying not to act suspicious and then -

“There’s another you in there, but I don’t think he’s a professor! He has a Jules too though, and he’s always your favorite!” Sarina explains quickly and with the most innocent voice she can manage. “Don’t worry, I don’t mind. I’m Ezri’s favorite, after all.”

Garak looks reproachfully at Julian, as if it was all his fault.

"Julian, love, I think right now I hate you and your augment friends." he whispers angrily.

“At least it was not Jules who sold us out.”

“No, and I’m sure she did it on purpose.”

“Yes, I’m sure as well. So... what do we say?”

“As little as we can.”

They open the door and smile. Julian waves with one hand carefully.The professor frowns but doesn’t say anything. He glances at Garak but soon his eyes are fixed on Julian, until he starts sweating. This Garak knows how to use his stare too.

“I’m not exactly Jules... I’m Julian, actually - we’re from... another place, we’re here by mistake. If you could point us to somewhere where we could make calculations, and maybe a transport, you’d never hear from us again.”

“Another place?”

“Yes, we...“

“Julian.”

"what?"

"Shut up, dear"

Garak doesn't want his other self knowing too much until he is sure it is safe. He takes a step in front of Julian protectively. Julian rolls his eyes and tries to step around his arm.

“Garak, I’m a Starfleet Officer, you don’t need to protect me.”

The professor looks confused but one glance suffices for Garak to make sure the doors are locked, and probably so is the security system. He is more than certain that any sudden movement will be rewarded with a swift phaser shot.

“Why are the two of you here? No point denying that either of you are changelings, so we’ll have to kill you right where you stand, or you come from another universe.” asks the professor in a gentle voice. It sounds so harmless it is the most menacing thing Julian had ever heard.

“We are... I’m from Starfleet. Julian Bashir, at your service.” Julian extends his hand but the professor doesn’t take it.

“I don’t know what Starfleet is. Another universe, then. I’d say secret agents, but no agent would give themselves away, now would they? Care to tell me how and why you’re here then?”

"We crossed by mistake", answers Garak. No point trying to keep that information secret. Allowing them to believe they are founders or spies is even more dangerous.

"Visitors, then. Delighted to be your host”. The warm of his voice doesn’t reach his eyes. “What's Starfleet?"

"You don't... Then, what is this?"

"Section 31 of the terran-klingon alliance."

That doesn’t sound good at all. Julian remembers the klingon-cardassian union he encountered before. Julian can’t believe he’s fallen right into the alternate version of Section 31 all over again.

“Of course it is. And so, why are you keeping all of them in these well decorated but clearly locked quarters?” Garak’s expression is as placid as the one in his double’s face.

"This is a school. They can't go out because of the war, so they are protected here and their minds put to work. Kelas and I make sure their needs are all covered."

Garak face turns of a weird color at that name and Julian looks at him, deciding to ask later, but crosses his arms and shakes his head a little. Garak is still in front of him, with a stance that seems relaxed but ready to jump at the slightest provocation.

“So, they are fighting a war?”

"When Cardassia allied itself with Romulus the balance of power shifted. We are losing the war out there. So yes, they are our own human computers. They are the only thing between Cardassia and us."

Garak knows bait when he sees it. He also knows the best course of action is making the other believe he’d fallen for it.

"Are you fighting against your own people?” Garak asks with a clipped voice. He’s doing the same by decoding for the Federation, if he has to be honest with himself, but better let the other believe he’s enraged.

"My own people tortured both Kelas and me. I’m not overly fond of them, as you may understand."

"I'm sure they did." Garak would be fine with being tortured for the cause, and wonders how any version of himself could be different.

The professor raises the hand where a finger is missing and smiles so widely that Julian feels a chill run through his spine.

“Yes, they were thorough. Call me Elim, by the way. No need for fancy titles among equals. We need to find Kelas and see what to do with you."

“Where are you going to take us?” Julian asks as he takes a step forward and grasping Garak’s hand, trying to look as protective as possible. He won’t let them separate them.

"To the infirmary. Kelas will be able to run test on you to determine if what you say about yourselves is the truth. Don't worry, we are not Cardassia. You will have all your fingers by the end of the day."

 

Kelas is very shocked when the two men come in. Elim is walking behind them, a placid smile on his face.

"Kelas, dear, I’m sorry to interrupt you work, but apparently we have another me and another Jules running wild on the station. Is there any way to test them before interventor Sloan comes back?"

“You’re working with Sloan?” Julian huffs and takes a step back with wide eyes. Garak squeezes his hand to keep him in place.

“You’re afraid of your Sloan. Interesting.” Elim looks at him curiously while Kelas prepares his equipment.

"My Sloan kidnapped me, tortured me, played with my mind and tried to recruit me. And then he used me in a complot. So excuse me if I don't sound thrilled to meet him."

"Sounds like the same man, wouldn’t you say?", Kelas smiles.

“Yes, I’d say so, my dear doctor”, Elim smiles too, his eyes fixed on Julian, who gulps audibly. He’s more and more sure they are really interested in him, a lot more than they are in Garak.

“You are collaborating with him to use them?” Julian is trying to keep his voice steady, but he is grabbing Garak’s hand so tightly that his knuckles are white. This is bad. He needs to get them out.

"You'd rather have us leave this people alone with him?" Elim says softly.

Julian is taken aback by that. Kelas makes a small gesture for him to go to the testing area, and Garak moves with him in silence.

“Of course not! But you should be working on freeing them, not leaving them here! It’s not safe!” Julian snaps a little, though he still goes and sits down on the medical table. “What tests do you plan on running? I’m a Doctor, I’ll know if they’re fabricated.”

"For starters, we need to make sure you are not changelings. The war ended some years ago but it is a delicate peace. And then, resonance tests. From what we've gathered from other visitors, you should vibrate at a different frequency."

“Anything else?” Julian holds his hand out dutifully to be pricked. All those are his routine procedures for suspected mirror visitors or changellings, so at least the science checks up. Still, he’s sure there’s more than just knowing that for them. The way Elim looks at him makes him nervous.

“I’d like to test if and how you were augmented. We have quite a lot of experience in that area as you could imagine.”

“Is it like my universe then? The more ... obviously augmented people end up in an institute?”

Kelas gestures for a chair with a polite smile.

“Garak, please, if you might. Please sit so I can take your samples as well.”

Garak complies, if a bit more warily. Kelas waits a bit for the samples to turn grey. Once he makes sure they are not turning into goo, he addresses them again.

"Before the creation of this Institute, they were killed. We insisted on using their abilities. These five are the only ones left."

“They’re the only five I’ve met so far in my timeline too, including me, so I don’t know what happened to the rest, if there were more. I was the only one who functioned normally enough to live in society.”

"You were not taken there, then, I assume? What about war?" Kelas is delicate while running tests. He scans them with a tricorder. Julian had been expecting to be a bit manhandled, honestly. He can help but trusting him, at least in the medical department, even if he knows that is a mistake.

Julian swallows a little and then nods.

“I joined Starfleet - scientific research and development. I’m a chief medical officer there. We’re at war with the Founders too, but the Federation was created 200 of years ago between the Trill, humans, Vulcans, and, well, other species. We are at peace with the klingons and romulans.”

Elim looks at them with curiosity. There’s something in his expression Garak can’t quite decipher. Longing, perhaps?

"Vulcan was conquered by Romulus several years ago and that’s what triggered the war. Most powers are small and scattered now, there's not much for alliances here. I think Kelas and I were accepted only because they hoped we'd give them secrets from Cardassia. They didn't take into account I was a school failure and a bastard."

“So you’re not a spy?”

“Is this Garak?”

“He’s a tailor. Quite skilled. I just assumed you were because you are here.”

Elim gets closer and examines his face.

"You look and act almost just like our Jules, it is amazing. A bit more chatty, if anything."

"So how did you find him, then? I was able to bypass the Institute for over 20 years."

"He was in Adigeon prime when the troops stormed in and found him. We think he was spared because they couldn’t stomach killing a child."

“Oh! That makes more sense. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been caught. So it wasn’t because he’s … different from me.”

Garak covers his face with his hands. He just can’t stand to hear anymore. He gets closer to Julian and whispers urgently.

"Julian. Just shut up and let the doctor finish the tests."

“He’s done with mine. Maybe you should stop making such suspicious faces.”

Garak pinches his arm lightly.

"Stop giving them information."

“I’m not giving them information, I’m asking for information about Jules.”

"You are telling them all they want to know and they don't even have to ask. Just shut up. This information will all go directly to Sloan, Julian. Remember that."

“What do they want to know? That both Julian Bashirs turned out perfectly normal, save that one was locked up for ridiculous reasons? That there’s a Federation in a universe they’ll likely never see? This is not exactly prime espionage material, Garak.”

"You want this Sloan trying to pass in to our universe? You know he might."

Julian gulps and is about to argue, but then remembers all the stories of people going from one universe to the other. He even remembers how many times the DS9 senior staff ended up on the other side. Maybe Garak is right on this. At least they did get a lot of intel.

“So now what, Mr. Elim? I believe our tests are finished.”

Elim and Kelas look at each other before smiling at them. Again, warm smiles, even colder eyes than before.

"Now we'd like to show you your quarters until we decide what to do with you. You don't mind sharing the room, do you? You understand, we can't let you roam the facilities just yet."

In other words, they will be imprisoned in a nice room until Sloan arrives, Garak thinks bitterly.

“Can’t we stay with the augments? You could keep an eye on us there.” Julian crosses his arms and asks. In his mind, there are two possible scenarios: they help them escape, or they all escape together. There’s no way their combined minds won’t be able to solve this, he only has to convince them. He and Garak may be smart, but there’s no way they will solve this on their own, not even knowing if there are ships on the station.

Garak’s eyes widen and he is about to grab Julian’s arm and shake him. Elim smiles at them an signals the door.

"Maybe tomorrow. We will give you food and you can rest. If you'd like to follow us, we will show you the way. Oh, and there are lasers in the walls, so don't try anything."

“Fine. But can you bring me my bag? It ended up on the Augments room and I’d like to change my clothes.”

Garak is holding Julian very close now, because he really needs to teach him to think before he speaks.

“We’ll Be Fine. Thank you, gentlemen.”

"We will bring you your bag along with something to eat. Sadly the replicator seems to be down on that room", Elim says without turning.

Kelas is on the rearward, while Elim walks on the front, talking amicably with them. They seem relaxed but there’s a hidden menace on the way they move.

“Of course it is.” Garak tuts back as they are led to said room.

 

As soon as the door closes, Garak grabs Julian’s arm harshly.

"They will be monitoring us. Don't open your mouth unless it is to talk medicine or eat until I disable everything."

“Fine then.” He starts talking in morse with him again.

We need to take them with with us, Garak.

Them?

The augments. It is not safe for them.

Garak takes out of his suit a small scrambler and begins disabling all the devices on the room. Julian follows him.

Jules is being taken care here, love. The outside may be a warzone worse than what you'd encountered so far, and he has no training.

With us back to Deep Space 9, Garak.

Garak finishes tampering with the security system and turns to Julian. He’s sure they had been expecting him to disable it anyway. It was an extremely basic system.

"You can't change the amount of matter in an universe, Julian. It is a constant. You have no idea what it may do to either of them if you remove an entire person."

“Please, people came to our universe from the mirror universe for years. I’m quite sure they ate and the contents of their stomachs crossed with them, to say the least. And neither universe imploded. He doesn’t belong here. We’re not like them. He’s being held back. Imagine how lonely and bored he must be, how alienated.”

Garak decides to try a different approach.

"So, you plan on rescuing only Jules? what about the others? you can't soothe your ego and let the others here to rot."

“They’re not the same as us. Taking them back to my world just puts them in a different institute. What good is that?”

"It is a question of ego and you know it. You are still trying to prove you are different to the others, and he provides you with a perfect opportunity."

“No, you’re making it a question of ego because that makes it easier for you to not feel guilty about leaving Jules and the others to rot here.”

"You are not Jules. He is an entirely different person, in a different world. I wouldn't trust Elim or Kelas and neither should you. They are not us."

“You said I was exactly the same earlier today, when we first met Jules. You don’t get to play both sides when it’s convenient to you, Garak.”

"Just because you act the same and share DNA doesn't mean you are the same. He is a mirror image. And this is a mirror world. We can’t interfere. I’m sure you heard the story of how the Terran Empire got itself in disarray because one of your nice starfleet officers decided to give a little speech and encourage a little change, love."

“Oh, of course, suddenly your story changes when it fits your agenda. Well, you can do what you want, Garak. I’m taking Jules with me and helping the others escape or I’m ending up stuck here.”

Julian walks over to one side of the room and sits on the floor and closes his eyes. Garak knows when he pushes too much, and this time he is sure he’s done that. But Julian needs to acknowledge the truth and understand that saving Jules won’t make wrongs right about what was done to him when he was little. Nothing will, and certainly it won’t be his fault either.

Two small plates materialize in the table with their meals, and at their side, their small travel bags. Garak wonders idly if his double already realized he tampered with all the listening systems. Yes, he probably expected him to do it, in fact. By doing it he probably gave him all the tools to measure his abilities.

He sighs and looks at Julian.

"Dear, stop brooding and come eat. We need our strength for what’s to come."

“I’m not brooding, I’m meditating.”

"Meditate while you eat, then. I can be silent if your meditation requires it." He rolls his eyes.

“I’m not hungry and for all you know it’s poisoned.”

Garak takes a bite and Julian looks at him alarmed.

"It would not do them any good to kill us before extracting information."

“They’re not spies, they’re doctors. I know a little bit more about how they’d kill in this area.”

"Sloan is a doctor too?"

“We don’t know that he isn’t.”

"Really."

“Yes.” Julian crosses his arms. So much for silent meditation.

"It is quite safe to conjecture he is far from medicine, love. Still, he won't kill us just yet. I think I know enough on that department to be sure the food will be safe". Garak takes another bite from his fish bread. He’d missed it, it is just as it would have been done in Cardassia. “You know, dear, nobody will go through the effort of making such a perfect bread only to put poison in it. You should try it.”

“Well, I disagree. Feel free to have my share. Too bad you chose a mate with no culinary abilities. Seems like Kelas may be able to compensate in that department.” Julian is not even sure why he is angry at this point.

"Suit yourself. But I plan on elbowing you if your stomach wakes me up in the middle of the night."

“It won’t. I’m not sleeping so you don’t need to worry about that.”

"As you wish. But they were quite thoughtful. They sent a cardassian and a human meal. This rokassa juice is quite good too."

Garak knows himself. He'd prefer a prisoner at ease and with a stomach full before a gruesome interrogation. It makes them easier to break afterwards. He remembers doing that to Kelas Parmak, so many years ago, after all. The poor doctor had really expected him to be on his side after being fed for the first time in days.

“How lovely for you.”

Julian is not stupid, he knows what they are doing too. But he doesn’t want to be at ease. He only survived internment camp 371 because he was always hungry and tired and thus aware. And he doesn’t want to start feeling sympathy for his captors.

Garak sighs and finishes eating. He stretches and goes to the bed. Extremely comfortable, too. Better than the ones in DS9 or in the Defiant. Maybe his old back will thank them for it in the morning. If they will be interrogated, at least it will be nice to be with his neck straight.

"Won't you come to bed?"

“No, I told you I’m not sleeping.” Julian is reading one of the padds he brought. “Goodnight, Garak.”

Garak grabs a blanket and sits besides Julian, putting it around their shoulders. He moves a bit until his head is resting on Julian’s shoulder and grabs his waist, pulling him closer.

"Goodnight, Julian.”

“What are you doing? Don’t sleep on the floor, you’re far too old for that.” He is still angry but it is hard to keep a straight face in front of a lizard that right now looks a bit like an obnoxious puppy.

And in retaliation Garak grabs him by the waist and pulls him down with him. Julian can’t help the small yelp and chuckle that follows that. So much for being uncomfortable and aware of his surroundings.

"Respect your elders, then, you young little pest."

“Let go of me. I’m trying to read and you’re smashing Kukalaka.”

"Mmm, too bad for Kukalaka, because I have no intention of moving away."

He snuggles more closely and gives him a kiss.

"Garak! they may be looking at us through monitors!"

“I imagine they figured out we were dating after you kept grabbing my arm and romantically declaring you wouldn’t go anywhere without me. Anyway, I disabled everything.“

Julian considers elbowing him in the stomach, but he figures he needs Garak in good health so they can escape. Besides, his dramatics are improving his mood despite himself.

"Still I don't plan on giving them a free spectacle, you lizard."

“We’re not going to do anything but cuddle and sleep. I’m hurt that you think I am the kind of person that would do that sort of things in a prison, Julian.”

“I’m not sleeping.”

"Cuddle and not sleep, then", and Garak buries his nose in Julian's hair.

Julian sighs and lets Garak hold him and tries to read his padd and squeeze Kukalaka to his chest at the same time, but eventually he gives up on the pad and just grabs his bear, apparently falling asleep.

Garak waits until he feels Julian’s breath get even before allowing himself to relax. He is very concerned by the statement Elim made about being a school dropout and a bastard. He can predict himself if he is a Bamarren ex alumni, but this, he is not sure how to take it. Did he even get to work for the Obsidian Order? or maybe he was part of the rebel cell Parmak was in? What are the implications of this? How can he get himself and Julian safely home if he can't guess his own moves? And Jules could be an issue too.

Kelas seems less like his own too, and he is not sure how he will react considering he is with Elim. He seems to be the edgier of the two, and that makes him nervous. This is not a Kelas he'd be able to break, and that is a problem if they need to escape them too.

He wonders what role has Tain in the whole thing, too. Did they walk right into a conspiracy?

Meanwhile Julian is focused on what Sloan is doing with the Augments and the war. What crimes is he having them commit? Deep down he knows Garak is right with the assessment that they can't just cross them over, he'd done the calculations the first time they crossed universes after all and he tried to take Smiley back with them.

He does consider staying. They'd all be safer with him, if nothing else. Trade places with Jules. He could convince Garak to stay with him and send the professor to the other side, with a warning for Starfleet to deal with him accordingly and maybe imprison him.

But it is too big a risk, even worse than messing with time.

He is upset and frustrated, and he's not even sure it matters, because they're probably going to die here anyway. He doesn't like the way Garak reacted when he saw the two cardassians. And more than anything, he wants to know about Kelas.

"Elim. Are you asleep?"

"Not really."

"Neither am I. Who is Kelas? your Kelas, I mean."

Garak had hoped not to have this conversation. Not that soon, at least.

"He was a prisoner I had to interrogate."

"Did you hurt him? Like this... this Elim is hurt?"

"Actually I just stared at him for hours. My eyes ended up quite sore from not blinking."

"Oh, sure. And what, that broke him? Those blue bright eyes brought him to his knees, just like that?" Somehow that was not the answer he was expecting, which means there’s at least a bit of truth to it. He wants to believe not all of Garak’s past is covered in blood, even if he knows it probably is.

“He was quite a sensitive man at the time.”

Julian snorts and stays silent for a moment. He snuggles closely.

"Do you think it would have worked on me?"

"My dear, I don't even need to look at you for you to tell me everything."

"And yet I concealed from you my augmentation for 5 years."

Garak wonders if he should smash that smugness out of his voice. Yes, he will. Is not like they have anything else to do anyway.

"Yes, it was most delightful to discover you were able of doing such a thing. But I knew anyway."

"What?"

"My dear, why do you think I continued to meet you after it was clear the Federation would not kill me? You were always rather special even when you concealed the full extent of your intelligence. So much interesting than any other human."

Julian turns and looks at him with a smile. Time for the finishing blow, Garak thinks. He feels his brain almost hurting from the effort of telling the truth. Or part of it.

"And from time to time, you'd forget to conceal your intelligence and really challenge me."

"What? No, I didn’t! I was very careful not to. I knew exactly how often I should mispronounce a word or drop something and - I only did that when it would have made sense for me to know. I played dumb plenty of times."

"I still knew when you were doing it. And you never noticed when I switched to Kardassi in the middle of our lunches."

"I - when did you do that?"  

“At least a couple times per week. So nice, being able to listen to my mother tongue, even if you had a slightly non sibilant cadence.”

Julian sits up, scandalized. Garak is smiling so wide he looks like a happy snake.

"How quickly did you figure me out?"

"... 3 lunches, maybe? or where they four?"

"That's ridiculous, Garak, even for you!"

He huffs and flops back to the floor, being promptly hugged again.

"Remember when you lent me Dracula? my critique was done in Kardassi, love. That’s why people stared at us, not because of your incredibly smart retorts."

"Why would you have given me a critique in Kardassi?"

"Because you didn't realize I was doing it."

"But - what made you suspect - wait, you... I can’t believe you!"

"And only now you realize it, do you?"

Julian can’t believe it. They may be about to die, and Garak is happily disclosing all of this? Now?

"I had no reason to think you'd switch languages mid-conversation, Elim."

"You didn't even notice you were making different sounds? Surely your throat must have been sore from all the sibilant pronunciation. They are so not suited for a normal human throat, my love."

"I - sometimes my throat gets sore. I figured I just talked too much. Maybe I shouted when you told me Lucy had it coming."

Oh yes. He shouted in kardassi. His defense of the blood transfusion was so cute while being presented in Garak’s own language.

"How did you learn kardassi, anyway? You were quite good already, even if your pronunciation was not perfect at the time."

Julian knows that what Garak is doing is trying to get his mind out of Jules and the others, and out of the prospect of being tortured by Sloan again, but this time he is just thankful from being distracted like that. He also knows he wanted to get the conversation as far as possible from Kelas.

"Well you see, this mysterious Cardassian spy kept approaching me, maybe even flirting with me."

"But you knew kardassi before. Or was there any other cardassian I know nothing about? Should I get jealous?"

And he snuggles a bit closer, his mouth close to Julian's ear. It would be perfect except that they are on the floor in a cell. Well, he can't have everything. And at least it's a comfortable cell, having a comfortable banter. Maybe he'll convince Julian to get on the bed in a minute.

"Maybe there was”. He enjoys a bit the shocked expression on Garak’s face, and places a quick kiss on his nose. “But no, honestly, I knew I was going to a formerly Cardassian held base. I thought it might come in handy."

"Oh, so you were hoping to find a sexy cardassian spy in that base?"

"Maybe I was. I do love a challenge, after all."

"I was a challenge for you, then?" and he slides a hand down his spine. Julian opens his eyes comically.

"Elim! they may be watching us!"

"We are under a blanket." He doesn’t remove his hand.

"Still! We need to be more discreet, so not until we get home."

"you are really hurting me. We are covered, everyone would have been none the wiser if you had not yelped. Come on, let's go to sleep in a more comfortable place. This lizard spine of mine is not getting any younger."

"Fine, Fine. Let's go to the bed." And they curl up there and this time Julian does fall asleep.

Garak held him close and really hopes this Elim was telling the truth about not being Obsidian Order, because there’s no scenario in his head where they will be both together and alive by the end of their ordeal. Still, as a former interrogator, he knows they need their strength so he forces his mind to calm down and fall asleep, holding him as close as he can.

And Kelas and Elim find them like that in the morning when they bring their breakfast, curling in the bed, holding to each other as if they were the only thing holding them to the world. Maybe they are, considering their situation.

Chapter Text

Julian wakes up to two Garaks and for a second he’s just confused, until he remembers where he is and what happened.

“Oh. Uhm... hello? So... is this the part where you interrogate us?”

Elim and Kelas look at each other, until the former clears his throat.

"Actually, we wanted to know how you spent the night and have breakfast with you. But I think we will give you some privacy minutes first."

“That will be most kind of you.” Garak smiles at them, and doesn’t get up until they leave the room.

Once the door closes, he gets up and changes his clothes, with an annoyed expression in his face.

“I can’t believe there’s one version of me that’s so rude that comes into a room unannounced. They could at least have knocked. So, so impolite.”

“Elim, you’ve done that with me for years.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it?”

“Well, we are dating.”

"You did that way before we started, if memory serves.”

Julian is about to go get his clothes when Garak steps between him and the bags, handing him two matching pieces with a serious face.

“I won’t risk you combining green and pink, love.”

Julian snorts but puts on the ones that are being offered to him. His stomach rumbles.

“I'm hungry."

"Of course you are. You didn't eat your dinner."

"It could have been poisoned."

“I think my continued existence is proof that is was not.”

“So could be our breakfast. Maybe they are waiting for us to be comfortable before killing us.”

Julian makes a smug face and Garak rolls his eyes. Really.

"From one torturer to the other. Just eat up, Julian. You are truly torturing me right now. Just eat as a normal person for once."

"We are supposed to wait for them for breakfast, anyway." He eyes the table, wondering if they will notice if something is amiss.

“Of course. So polite.”

Kelas and Elim come back after some minutes. Kelas smiles at them gently and asks If they want to eat. Julian tries to look a bit more collected and just nods, but he's starving by the time they finish preparing the table, so he says thank you and then immediately starts eating his scones at a ridiculous high speed. All the cardassians look at him with a pained expression, eating slowly.

“He really is just like Jules.”

Julian would like to snap he is not, but he is sure that would only make things worse, so he just smiles. He surreptitiously glances down at Kukalaka on the floor while drinking his coffee. He knows logically the bear is fine, but ...he doesn’t trust this Elim not to rip off its arm in search of a reaction. They are polite. Too polite for his taste. He knows it will end soon.

Garak and Elim are looking at each other, not saying a word, and at that point it is getting quite uncomfortable for all the people around them. Julian is quite sure neither has blinked in the last 2 minutes. Maybe what Garak said about his Kelas is true, because right now he’d do anything to get a reaction from any of them.

"Ever dabbled with gardening, dear?" Garak breaks the silence first. Julian jumps a little at the sudden noise, but Elim just smiles, apparently not as surprised.

"No, not really. Then again, I'd never think of going into tailoring business, either."

“So, what business did you go into? You look like a man that may like to work with his hands, mister Elim.”

Garak looks at Elim’s right hand and raises his eyeridges, small smile playing on his lips. He’d forgotten the thrill of the interrogation, the chase.

“Do I, now, mister Garak? You don’t mind if I address you like that, do you?”

“Oh, not at all, but I hope you’ll let me call you Elim, so we can distinguish one from the other in the time being.”

The two Garaks are still measuring each other so Kelas puts his full attention in Julian.

“So, what about you, dear? Any interesting thing about yourself?”

Think of the most harmless thing you could throw, Julian. Friends, research? No, totally off limits. Holodeck? He’ll try to analyze you. Medicine could risk giving him information we don’t want them to have. Sports. Sports is a good one.

“Um ... I wanted to play tennis as a child, I was quite a good player indeed. Did Jules?”

"What's tennis?"

“Oh! It’s a sport where you use a racquet to hit a ball back and forth over a net. Pretty fun, actually. Is Jules - is - how is he handling the war?”

"Hitting a ball? that sounds so strange. It is a game, you say? Somehow it sounds a bit violent, don’t you think?” He's... ok, I suppose. He is mostly in his own world lately." Kelas puts his elbows in the table and crosses his fingers, pulling his head forward to have a better look at Julian.

“Oh. Well that is very different from me. Interesting.”

Garak raises an eyeridge in disbelief at that. Julian handling the war fine? Is he trying to look tough or is he truly in denial? He takes his attention to Elim again, this is not the moment to ask those sort of questions.

"You said you were a bastard, yesterday, if memory serves. I'd like to know a bit more about that."

“I was born the son of Mila and Tain.” The congenial expression never leaves Elim’s face.

Garak is quite surprised at how open this version of himself is. But is he, really? After all, it is not as if the purely genetic facts about himself could change too much. He may have learned to lie and obscure, but the talent was his all along, and he doubts this Elim will lack in that department.

"Did you, now? and how about your education, Elim?"

“I was educated at school and then later on, universities here.”

“Human universities?”

“Is that surprise in your voice, my dear Garak?”

Julian turns his head to look at Garak briefly and then goes back to Kelas. He still has questions about Jules. He’s not ready to go back to his universe until he’s sure he’ll be safe. He suspects this Institute has the worst of his own and of Section 31, wrapped up in a nice Cardassian bow.

“What is Jules like? As a person, I mean. Does he have friends here?” Julian smiles at Kelas. If he is able to keep the conversation going around Jules, he may be able to avoid personal details of himself.

"He is friendly with the other people here, but doesn't like outsiders. He doesn't trust anymore after some... incidents we had."

“He doesn’t trust them - why not? What happened?” Julian is quite curious. For something to break him, it must have been terrible. After all, not even camp 371 was able to make him lose himself. He may not be as interested in new people as he used to be, but he is still his own trusting self most of the time.

"Let's say... People on the outside doesn't like the people on the inside, with the augments ruling Earth until some decades ago."

“The augments ... ruled? So I take it the Eugenics war went down differently here. They’re afraid of us in my world too, but not to this extent. The others were institutionalized because they couldn’t function and I was never found out.”

300 years of Khans ruling Earth? No wonder things are different. Julian wants to ask for pads and study about it. He’s never been too fond of history, but this feels... personal.

Garak still has his attention focussed on Elim. He’s honestly curious about that bit about being educated in terran schools. Not only is something he’d never do, he knows for a fact no Federation university would accept a Cardassian, as he’s discussed with Julian several times.

"University? What about cardassian institutes, Elim? Though I'm surprised a bastard that admits to being one so openly was able to study at all."

“Well, I wouldn’t have done it at all if Tain had any say in it. But going against my father comes as easily to me as literature.”

"Does it, now? You don't respect him?"

“Respect Tain for what? Refusing to marry my mother, protect her and do what he should have done on her behalf? For failing in his duty to his family?”

"He had no duty with a bastard! You should be happy just to be allowed to live." I should have killed you when you were still in the womb. Tain’s words resonate in his head. This conversation is proving to be less pleasant than he predicted it to be.

“I can see that your Mila was less enlightened than mine.”

"Don't you dare say anything about Mila. And I was raised by the Garaks. Who I am, I owe it to Tolan."

“That makes your blind loyalty to Tain make even less sense.”

Garak smiles pleasantly at Elim.

"Tain made me who I am, my dear professor. But I can see why you were tortured instead of being the one calling the shots."

“And I can certainly see why you were the one doing, no, enjoying the torture.”

Julian thinks he should feel more uneasy at the conversations about torture. He should discuss this with Garak, throw all his Federation convictions at him. And yet, at this moment, in a fancy prison, he finds himself not caring about that, which spooks him more than anything the augments may be doing in that facility. He wonders if he’d do whatever necessary may the situation arise, may he have to choose between them and Sloan, and he is not so sure anymore. Better not let Kelas know about this.

“So, Kelas, you were telling me about the augments. Seems like a very interesting topic. For us it was just such a short period of time.”

Kelas frowns at Julian’s eagerness to learn about the augments and the Eugenic Era.

"Augments are the reason there's a war. These five are the only ones left. We are here to protect them. Jules was silent for a year after a mob tried to kill him."

“I see. The war ended much earlier in my timeline. Some 200 years before I was born. For us, it’s merely a shameful thing, something that means we have to be kept out of society typically.”

Kelas nods with his head and assesses Julian for several seconds, as if searching for something in his expression.

"I see why you are less afraid of people than our Jules. He knows he shouldn't trust anybody, you have less wisdom in that department."

“It’s not dangerous for me to trust people in my world. People - enough people anyway - accept me for what I am. Augments in my world are considered to have the potential to become dangerous, but mostly they’re considered broken things. The treatment had numerous unfortunate side effects for everyone but me.”

"These ones were the failed ones as well. Most of them turned better than you or our five ones, but in the decadence years, scientist were sloppier and made more and more mistakes. The original genetic material had degraded too. The facilities in Adigeon had their own graveyard, since most of the late period children would end up dead. And yet they had no other choice than keep forcing normal children to go through it. I’m sure you know why."

Julian is suddenly thrown off his game. Deflect, Julian. Remember Garak’s training. Don’t rise to that bait.

“Turned out better than me? How could they have possibly - did they get enhanced strength too then? I did always feel a bit cheated there.”

“That’s not what I’m interested in talking about, Julian. I think we both know why they risked making new children despite that.”

He knows what Kelas is talking about. He just doesn't want to acknowledge yet the fact about his treatment’s little side effect he's known about for so many years.

Garak’s expression is still placid, even if he’s not enjoying that much this memory trip. He doesn’t allow himself to turn his attention to Julian just yet. He can feel when an interrogator hits a nerve. Right now, he’s not sure if the nerve was only Julian’s, so he forces himself to keep his eyes steady and don’t search for confirmation of what he’s just heard in his.

Instead, he fixes his stare in Elim, relaxed attitude while he chews his breakfast slowly.

"I didn't enjoy the torture. I just did my duty, if you can even understand what that word means, dear Elim."

“Please. I fully know what duty means. I just don’t use it as an excuse to justify my own crimes.”

"I am an instrument for the State, as any cardassian should be."

“And how is the State faring with you as an instrument?”

"And how is Mila's training fairing for you here, babysitting failed humans?"

Kelas chuckles in a way that makes Julian feel offended. There’s something almost... condescending in his eyes. Is that pity? For not being human enough, augmented enough? Just some poor creature in between? Just some genetic dead end, incompatible with any life form? There’s a reason it was so easy to eradicate the augments on Earth. No bloodlines.

"Julian, you are nothing like the Khan Heirs. You'd have been regarded as a mistake here. A poor, sad boy condemned to roam the streets in some backyard world." Kelas' look is almost affectionate.

“I - well of course I’m not like the Khan Heirs, I don’t want to be an emperor. Is not having megalomaniac desires considered a mistake? I’d rather stay as such, then. Funny, for a moment I thought you were against the megalomaniac ones too.”

"Not wanting to take your place as a superior race would be considered being a failure, here.”

“Right then, I’d be happy to be one. But then - if I’d been raised here, I might think I was superior.” He smiles smugly at Kelas, burying the way that makes his heart twist deep in his chest. “Nature vs nurture, I’d imagine.”

Julian shakes his head a little at the thought because he can’t quite stop himself, but also shrugs. They can’t really know and he needs to keep this game going for as long as he can. As long as he can keep Kelas focused on Jules or the abstract, no secrets will be revealed.

"Considering we know Jules, I don't think you would. Besides, they failed to correct your socialization problems and tendency for over excitement on both sides, it seems. No faction would have wanted you. Who could use a general that runs around like an excited puppy?"

And claiming to have been contacted by the cardassian spy, embarrassing himself in front of the whole senior staff, to make things worse. Yes, probably no dictator would want that.

“Yes, but you know Jules was taken when he was 6 from a lab. What if he hadn’t been? And I don’t have socialization issues, really.”

"Why do you need so much for me to tell you the augments would have taken you as one of their own? What's wrong with not fitting anywhere, Julian?"

Yes, Julian, why does this bother you so much? Don’t give him what he wants. Easier said than done. Julian had always hoped never to find somebody who actually knew about augments, somebody that could dig in all those things about himself.

“Because you’re not right about me. Whatever socialization issues Jules has, I don’t. And I suppose you couldn’t understand - even if you can’t go back to Cardassia, you can fit somewhere. It’s terribly lonely when you don’t.”

"And you know all about being lonely. Some people are not meant to fit anywhere, Julian."

Garak shrugs and drinks a bit of his rokassa juice, savoring the taste before giving his full attention back to Elim. All those things he’d never wanted to pressure Julian to confess are laid out in front of him, and he can’t do anything but listen.

Elim’s expression is not so different to the one Garak used to wear when conducting interrogations. Suddenly he feels sick at the idea of such creatures taking advantage of Jules.

“We are not exactly babysitters, my dear Garak. And I see you are always not two feet away from your own Julian, either. One may think you are over protecting him.”

"Just because you treat your Jules as a child doesn't mean I do the same. I don't see you talking down to Kelas. I’m quite sure my Mila would have quite a lot to say if I did that to Julian here."

“I don’t treat Jules as a child, I treat him as a student.”

"A student, or a prisoner? You have more security measures than a Cardassian Institute in here. And trust me, unlike you, I was quite able to attend one." And come out of it forever cynical and broken.

“We have them here to keep other people out, not to lock them in.They are working to try and bring an end to this war.”

"And after it ends, what? You'll find something else for them to work, because you know they can't be outside, and they are valuable assets. You are these people's Tain, Elim. You just don’t want to admit it to yourself."

Julian’s throat bobs while he tries to keep himself calm and not let Kelas words sink into his veins. Some people are not meant to fit anywhere . Every day, he looks at Garak’s sleeping face, and at his friends’ warm smiles, and wonder when will they decide to leave him for someone better than him, someone funnier, less broken, more normal. Someone whose DNA has not been tampered with until some frankenstein monster came out of it, not enough to be superior, too much to be normal.

“That’s a cruel thing to say, Kelas.”

"That's just the reality, Julian. You can't bury yourself in books and stories and pretend someday things will change. We may fit here, but we have no place outside, and probably neither have you."

"Do you, now? That's why you have them working, isn't it? Because they don’t fit outside, so you better give them use and keep them from socializing and trying things by themselves."

"So I assume you have a lot of friends out there? People just accept you right away instead of criticising you to your own face. You never go to a holodeck to forget about your own life for a few hours."

“I have plenty of friends in fact. And maybe I do go to the holodeck sometimes, but so does everyone else. It’s just a way to pass the time. And often, they are with me. Why, do you have holo facilities here? So kind of you, I thought you kept them working the whole day. Nice to see sometimes they’re able to relax as normal people.”

"But at the end of the day, do you really feel you fit? Are you like them? Deep down you know you are not a normal human, not a normal augment. You are something new and different. And they probably know that too. Do you really believe you are allowed to be with them because you are a nice, normal citizen? Your brain is useful, my little Julian. Your Federation is no better than us."

Elim really doesn’t like where this conversation is headed. And certainly, he doesn’t like being compared to the father he barely escaped so many years ago. He can see why Garak could find similarities, but he’d never allowed anybody to compare him to the cruelty he had to live with for so many years. Garak of all people should know better than to trace such parallels.

“I am not their Tain. I don’t hurt them. I can’t let them waste away doing nothing, though. The Alliance needs their brilliance and they need to work. Without it, they’re lost. Why, you’d prefer them rotting away, bored and alone? You have any idea the kind of trouble they could be without guidance?”

"Just because you don't hurt them doesn't mean you are not weaponizing them. You are doing the same Tain did, with less broken bones. And hopefully, without locking them in small places."

Elim decides not to raise to that last bit. Uncle Tain, I promise I will be more careful next time, just let me out.

“They’re not weapons. They’re scientists and doctors and philosophers.”

"That just happen to do calculations that decide who lives and who dies."

“They do those willingly. They want to help.”

"Do they know what are they helping with? Did they even chose who to help? Have they ever seen the blood?"

“They’ve seen blood. The mob didn’t leave Jules unharmed. We moved here because being on ground facilities were too dangerous.”

“And yet you have them fighting that people's fight. Quite ironic, if you think about it. I certainly wouldn’t make Julian protect people who hurt him."

“They aren’t - it’s more complicated than that. A man of your intellect should be able to realize how much more subtle reality is.”

"Is it, now? You are just being Cardassian. There's nothing to be ashamed of." Garak nodes encouragingly at Elim, lips curled into a smile that manages to be friendly and nasty at the same time.

“I’m not like you. I don’t put other people in danger just for the results.”

"But don't the results put people in danger? We are not so different. I think the biggest divergence between us is that I am not afraid of admitting my hands are dirty, dear Elim."

Julian feels he may get sick over his breakfast. So much for trying to fill his stomach. And Garak had insisted it was not poisoned.

Kelas’ grin is too big, and Julian can’t help thinking of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Quite fitting, considering they are on the other side of the mirror and everything seems to be upside down in this universe.

He fixes his stare on Kelas, hoping he looks as confident as he doesn’t feel.

“I do fit, yes. And I’m the only augment any of them know, anyway. The Federation includes all sort of people without discriminating.”

"Then I'd apologize, except that you seem far too angry to really believe your own words."

“I’m not! I’m angry because you’re trying to convince me of something that isn’t true. You’re trying to undermine me! I’m perfectly normal.”

Julian is just all frayed edges at this point, but he distantly knows that normal wasn’t the right word to use. Not here with Kelas. If he didn’t know Cardassians as he knows them, he’d believe the remorseful expression the doctor is now sporting in his face. But he’s been around Garak enough to know what to believe and what not to.

"I'm sorry if you thought I was trying to change the way you see the world. I've had this conversation so many times with Jules I assumed you'd think just like him. He is not angry at the place he occupies in the universe. He knows what the world has to offer for him."

“I’m not angry about that. Are you incapable of listening?” Julian is pretty much exhausted. He’s always enjoyed verbal sparring, but this is something else.

"Whatever you say, Julian. I was talking about Jules anyway."

“No you weren’t.” Julian closes his eyes and tries to take several deep breaths to get himself focused. He can’t play this game as well as he thought after all. Garak is going to be so disappointed. “Please leave.”

Kelas tries to grab Julian’s hand. He snatches it in time. He really doesn’t want that cardassian touching him. Kelas’ voice is soft when he speaks again.

"I'm sorry I disturbed you. What can I say to make it better?"

Julian doesn’t say anything, because he is very irritated and very tired with this interrogation. It’s somehow almost more obnoxious than Sloan’s was. He just wants to be left alone. Enough of people interrogating him, making assumptions, trying to play with his head. He’s had enough of it in the last two years. He just wants to sleep.

"Julian."

Julian shakes his head and then groans. Great, now he must look weak to Kelas. Vulnerable.

“I’m fine.”

"I'm sorry, Julian. Jules is not so sensitive. Not anymore."

“I’m not sensitive.” Julian tuts with a hint of a smile as he tries to regain some of his dignity.

"Dear, your sensitivity is the trait I miss the most from Jules."

“How did he come to lose it?” Julian asks quietly. If he focuses on Jules he can detach. Jules isn’t him. Garak is right, he’s trying to see in him things that aren’t there.

"He got into one encounter too many with hostile people."

“Right. Like I said I’m quite popular, so that doesn’t really happen to me.”

Julian tries to keep his voice light and airy even as he avoids making eye contact with Kelas, looking at the ceiling. He’s not a good liar except about his augmentations.

Elim smiles and makes a little head bow in direction to Kelas. Garak doesn’t like that exchange, the fact that they are in league to hurt Julian. Still, he keeps his expression steady. Elim fixes his eyes on him again before speaking.

“Dear Garak, all the people put in danger in this war go willingly. I don’t hold them in chambers against their own free will.”

"Conscript soldiers don't always go willingly to war. But people held in a facility just calculate new and creative ways to make them die."

“How would you know if they were conscript?”

"Have you ever been in the line of fire, Elim? or you are always in the back with your books, safe and cozy while others put their bodies in danger? You seem to be a bit unaware of the mechanics of field combat."

“Have you been? Or are you always behind the scenes in torture chambers? I’d imagine you’ve probably been quite cozy yourself.”

"I've been wherever I was needed. I don't squirm away when hands need to get dirty."

“I don’t squirm away, either. I do what is necessary. We are just needed for different things.”

"Do you? or do they do it, and you just direct from the shadows? As I said, as Tain."

“I do what I can, Garak. I’m not a genius like them.”

No dear this time? I may have hit a nerve. Does Elim have even more issues with his father than I do? So interesting.

Garak is smug, even if he knows he’s treading on a fine line.

"You are me. You are a genius."

“I’m not exactly you.”

"How so? I'd think only because in training and education, but your genes must be the same. You are Mila’s child after all."

“Maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are, Mister Garak. And neither am I.”

"Still, I believe you are smarter than you want people to believe. You and I are not so different."

“In some ways, maybe not. Opposites in other ways. Like our number of index fingers.”

"I'm quite sure Julian could give you a new finger if you wanted. Maybe you should ask him nicely, I’m sure he’ll help you even after all of this. He is just that nice."

“He could, but that would hardly be fair to everyone else in the war.”

"Is that some sort of penance, then? or you like to show it so people think you actually had a part in the war?"

“It’s neither. And people will think what they think. It’s hardly my fault if they make that mistake.”

"Such a Cardassian stance."

“I’m glad you approve, for I am after all, a Cardassian.”

"And it certainly shows, my dear Elim."

“I try my best to fight it, but sometimes I lose, my dear Garak.”

"I would not have been able to guess."

Elim rolls his eyes a little. Garak doesn’t buy the theatrics, but it is quite interesting to see the mask he so carefully constructed over the years being worn by somebody else.

“Are you always so charming?”

"I try. It is useful when you are in the tailoring business."

“Really, a tailor, then? You must meet all kinds of interesting people. Is that how you met this version of Jules? He certainly has better taste than ours.”

"Trust me, I try to show him the right way, but his taste is a lost cause. I suggested he could buy a suit and we just kept meeting."

Trust me is the last thing Elim would expect Garak to say. They both smile and laugh a bit, but it is a tense sound that dies soon.

Kelas looks at Julian and chuckles, shaking his head a little. He feels one more push and the poor boy will break. If only his enhancements had included a bit more of a backbone, a little less sensitivity. Then again, he can’t expect Cardassian traits in a little human.

"Sorry dear, despite of what you may say and how you may have convinced yourself of it, I don't think people like you have a place in the universe. Doesn't make them less worthy, only misplaced."

“What does that mean, people “like me”?” Julian rolls his eyes.

"Unnatural people. People remade in a lab. You were never meant to exist, so by keeping Jules and the others here we are helping the universe."

Julian feels a slight stabbing sensation in his chest and pulls back before he can stop himself. One thing is saying that to himself every day when he looks at the mirror, another one is hearing that in somebody else’s mouth. Knowing it is not just his self esteem, that other people really think that as well, and know why he feels that way.

“That doesn’t seem true, since you said all those other augments made their own factions. They seemed to have found a place for themselves after all.”

"And the galaxy suffered because of that. Because of those people that had to be breed in a lab in order to exist."

“Humans have caused plenty of suffering too. So has Cardassia. Why does it matter how they were done?”

"But they did it as part of societies, and societies change. The augments wanted to enslave all other societies and their own race. They didn't let the society evolve, they wanted it below them. They were not part of the natural flow of evolution. You know it. The only baby augments are those who are in the middle of a treatment. There’s a reason why genetic experimentation is frown upon even on Cardassia. Or you never wondered how it comes to pass that they have not tampered with all of their citizens?"

“I think you might want to read a few history books about the actions of Earth before the Federation, or Cardassia in Bajor before you make those kinds of claims, Kelas.”

"None of them had the strength and the intelligence of the augments. And few of them had the cruelty they had. Even the cardassians pale in comparison. That's why I say you are a failed augment. You should be proud. And even if you are not, well, at least you won't carry your genetic line down to a next generation, dear."

Garak turns his head at that and notices Julian this time doesn't meet his eyes. He's gulping and trying to find a retort that will take his attention out of that particular issue. Finally Julian smiles and looks at Kelas in the eyes. He won't let him see that particular pain in him.

“I don’t know if Bajor would agree with your assessment, or my Bajor anyway. And failure is ... There are other ways to come apart at the seams.”

"How would it be for you to be a failed augment, then? those five were the rejects of the eugenic project."

“It’s the other things you mentioned about Jules. The sensitivity and socialization issues and excitement. Those are the things I think would make me a failure, I suppose.”

Julian knows he should change the subject right away. He just doesn’t know what else to say anymore, but some masochistic part of him doesn’t want to stop. All the things he’d managed to hide so many years are just in front of him, in front of those two cardassians, in front of Garak, and he feels like a spectator of his own demise, telling them all they need to know to condemn him.

And Kelas knows all that.

"Why would all that be a failure, Julian? We just let him be like that, there's no need to teach him to repress himself. We don't judge him for being himself."

“Yet you insist in that he is a failure, and by extension, I am too. But it’s not about judging him or any of the others. It’s about preparing them for the world. What happens when the war ends? He needs to be able to exist outside of these walls. They all do.”

"I don't know how things are in your universe, but in this, people will never accept him, so he can be himself as much as he wants. We at least want to give him that."

“In mine - I am myself, but things are quite different. And I got a crash course in social etiquette after my first few months on deep space 9.” Julian smiles ruefully as he thinks of Kira and Jadzia. He thinks of home and tries to keep his mind there. Yes, he used to be so blunt. People thought of him as an entitled fool, while all he wanted was to make friends.

"Are you really, Julian?"

“Am I really what?” he keeps his eyes fixed on Kelas.

"Yourself."

Elim stretches and leans on his chair. He feels Kelas’ interrogation is coming along quite a bit better than his. Then again, he got the hardest subject. It is never easy to interrogate yourself.

“I’m sure we’d agree on many things. Or maybe not, dear Garak. You do seem rather sentimental.”

"At least I'm loyal to Cardassia and my own blood and those who deserve it.”

“No, not especially, I think. If you were, you wouldn’t be letting Kelas analyze your friend like that.”

As if you didn’t know what my friend is to me, you sweet hypocrite. And yet you try to deny being every bit as bad as I am.

"I think Julian can handle it better than you think."

“Can he, now? He seems rather agitated. Kelas is quite good at this.”

"He is not a child and I won't treat him like that. Unlike you, I consider myself his equal. I won’t humiliate him by playing your game, dear Elim."

Julian keeps his expression as steady as he can. One glance at Garak tells him they both know the game the other cardassians are playing with them. Garak has faith in him and his strength, so he needs to prove himself worthy of that.

Think of home, Julian. You and Garak will solve this, somehow steal a runabout and find a way back there.

He relaxes at the thought and looks at Kelas again.

"You think I’m not myself?"

“I suspect that you’re not. You said yourself that you had to learn how to be normal.”

“I said I had to learn about social etiquette. I was quite arrogant, at the start. It’s part of growing up.”

"Yet I'm quite sure you can't let yourself go in front of people. Not even Garak.”

“I can. What exactly do you think I’m holding back?”

"Do you really want to just stay here, sitting, instead of, say, walking in circles with your bear."

“I... I do like to pace, if that’s what you’re getting at.” He forces himself to smile and steadies his leg, which has been tapping on the floor nervously for the last 10 minutes. “It helps me think and it makes arguing with people feel a lot more productive.” If he’s alone in his room, he might pick Kukalaka up as he mind races with ideas, but he might just as easily grab a padd.

"Go on and do it. Do you do that in front of Garak?"

“I - Of course not. Not unless I’m telling him all the ways in which he’s wrong.” He smiles ruefully, with a confidence he doesn’t feel anymore. Especially not now that he’s forcing himself to stay still.

"Fear he'd judge you? I don't think he would. But I guess there’s only one way to find out."

Elim is watching them exchange blows. Garak is not. He’s forcing himself to keep his eyes off of Julian, to ease the tension he already feels by not observing him.

Elim chews delicately and drinks a bit before putting his full attention back on Garak.

“That’s fair. I wouldn’t let someone I consider my equal do that either. Intervening now would make your Julian seem so weak, wouldn’t it? We are fragile men after all, Mister Garak.”

"We may be fragile, but if I intervene, I will be saying he is not capable of enduring the same things I am. And I know for a fact he is." and I know he’s listening to my conversation as well. He can focus on all of it at the same time.

“I see. Fair enough then.”

"You don't seem to think he has what it takes to endure an interrogation, it seems. Quite interesting, dear Elim."

“Not a psychological one, no.”

"I think he can."

“I suppose we will find out.”

Julian rocks back and forth a little on his heels and swallows. He needs to stay calm. He needs to keep playing along, even when Kelas has just hit on a real fear. All the things that came from his enhancement, he can endure. Garak finding out he can’t even control his own body, he can’t. There’s a reason he was always opposed to sharing quarters with him.

"Why don't you try to find out? You don't trust him?"

“Of course I do but - you know, I don’t want to. This chair is certainly comfortable.” Julian shrugs his shoulders and tries to look relaxed, stretching on his chair and yawning.

"I don't think you trust him."

“It’s not him I don’t trust, mister Kelas. I’ve been told by him enough times never to trust a Cardassian.”

"Yet you say you never do it in front of him. Is he a Cardassian you don’t trust as well?"

“I never thought about it before. Besides, I don’t feel comfortable being ordered to do it by a stranger. You know, that’s not how it works. You don’t stretch when you are ordered but when your muscles ask you for it, don’t you?”

"But that would make you relax, wouldn't it?" Kelas’ voice is made of honey.

“And you want me to be relaxed, I imagine. So thoughtful of you.”

"Of course, Julian. I only have your best interests at heart."

“How is that in my best interests?”

“Because if you don’t relax, who knows what kind of accidents might happen.” Julian knows from Kelas’ tone that he doesn’t mean to Julian. “You’ve never dealt with stress well, I’m sure.”

Garak smiles and doesn’t even glance at Julian before delivering his next line. He knows he’ll understand anyway. He adopts a relaxed stance and drinks his rokassa juice.

"I like to know the person I'm with. And this is the easiest way to stripe them bare. I’d like to see how all this will play out."

“Very true. It was quite enlightening when Kelas had a session with me. I don’t think he’d have dated me otherwise.” Elim’s eyes are fixed on him, and his voice is soft and sweet too, mimicking Kelas.

"I thought your Kelas was a doctor too. Quite interesting, being a part time interrogator. We used to have some in the Order as well. We also sent some doctors to Bajor."

“He was a psychiatrist. The interrogator work was more of a duty to the State.”

"Did he remove your finger?"

“Oh, now that would be a romantic story! But tragically, no.”

"Was it before or after you met him, Elim?"

“Almost directly before.”

"Oh, so you met him in quite a painful moment of your life. Still quite a romantic story, I imagine."

“Yes, we were both being tortured for supporting rebels.”

Julian gets up and starts pacing around the room, half sure it will be a distraction to Kelas and half worried he’s giving him exactly what he wants. He can’t help it though, there’s too much anger coursing through his veins to stay still.

“You know what, I don’t have to sit here and listen to this. Not from a man like you.”

"Feeling better now you are moving?"

Julian glares at Kelas coldly and tries to bury the slight shake in his voice.

“Oh, amazingly so. My legs were really in need of exercise. As I told you before, I used to do a lot of physical activity.”

"And what more would help you, dear?"

Kelas picks Kukalaka up by one leg, pulling lightly on one of the stitches along his leg. Suddenly Julian doesn’t think it’s Elim that will start tearing Kukalaka apart.

"Want Kukalaka? Take him if you want."

“I - here, give me her then.” And Julian takes her, toss her to the bed in what he hopes is a carefree stance, and starts pacing again. “So Jules just paces around rooms holding his bear and rambling on about science?”

"He doesn't talk as much anymore, but yes, he paces."

“Oh. Right. I never know when to shut up. I either go on and on or I don’t talk for hours because I’m too busy doing research.” Julian lets out a sheepish laugh, shaking his head as he walks around Kelas’ chair again. It feels like they’re on more even ground again.

"He doesn't talk about research anymore. I guess he is more traumatized than you."

“Oh. Well,. I could try and talk to him. I might understand his reactions better.”

"Why would you understand his actions better? I thought you were the good version of Jules.”

“Not good. Different. I’m still Julian, who’s a replacement for the original Jules. Nothing more.”

Sit down, Julian. You are giving him what he wants. How can it be that he knows that and yet he can’t stop? Maybe he should have stayed put in the chair, because now he feels he can’t stop his head again.

Garak doesn’t turn but his eyes follow him discreetly. He’d feared the moment Julian would lose control, but still is not the moment to intervene. He needs to keep Elim occupied.

"And yet he interrogated you? Very interesting indeed. So, the State tortured you, then your would-be mate. Such a loving relationship you two have going on."

“He had to make sure I was trustworthy, given who my father was.”

"And his idea of that was messing with your head."

“Well, what better way to find out my true allegiances?”

"Lovely."

Kelas shakes his head and then follows Julian with his eyes as he moves around the room. Suddenly Julian realizes he should still himself and sits again. Kelas leans his head to the side to make it rest on his hand. He seems like a bird considering whether or not to eat a particularly fat worm.

"Clearly, Julian is a person that is worth more than many cardassians I've met. Too bad Jules won't be able to become that person.”

Julian doesn’t like the sound of that. He’s not just being interrogated. He is being measured and catalogued for further use. This is not an interrogation. This is a market sale, and he is merchandise. And he doubts Garak is on sale along with him.

“Why won’t he? It doesn’t seem like you’re giving him much of a chance.”

Garak reached the same conclusion that Julian a long time ago. He knows they will discard him once they are sure they can do it securely, and try to keep Julian. He’s being interrogated only to buy time, not because he’s part of the equation.

Still, he smiles and follows their game.

"Julian is his own person. He works in what he wants, not what he is told. He is with me because he choose to be."

“Jules can’t be where he chooses. Trust me, Garak, that was not my decision.”

"But you help enforce it."

“No, I keep them safe while it’s enforced. There’s a difference.”

"And after that? They will be too old to get reintegrated. Have they even been in society? This is but a fancy prison."

“We tried to take them on day trips sometimes. To museums and parks. Jules is so scared he doesn’t tag along anymore.”

"As if they were children"

“We don’t treat them like children.”

"Yet you take them on day trips. I'm sure you even got them hats and ice cream."

“Only the ice cream and only because Patrick asked for it.”

Elim’s expression is apologetic, but Garak thinks he’s enjoying telling him this. Giving him this little glimpse of what Julian’s life will be if he has any say in it.

"As children."

“Not children.”

"What, then, if not children?"

“Like prisoners I suppose. But at least this is a prison that keeps them safe.”

Kelas looks at Julian still with a sweet expression in his face. Julian is so close to the breaking point now, and he knows it.

"You know, Julian, I’m surprised at one thing. Jules doesn't feel he stopped being himself or feel ashamed of the fact he was augmented. You instead seem rather uneasy with the subject, even though in your world you were not hunted down as they were here."

“Yet, we became something else with the treatment.”

“Something more, perhaps.”

“Not more. Different. The ones we were before were killed in Adigeon.”

“Jules believes he was truly made someone better.”

“Jules is wrong.”

"Is he?”

“Of course! I’m nothing like what my Jules was. He was a six year old boy who was curious and quiet and overwhelmed by the world around him, but happy.”

“So you are dissociated. Ever had a psychiatrist work on that?”

“I’m not dissociated! I just remember enough of who I was to know I stopped being that person.”

Julian,stop talking. Stop saying things about your past to this predator. Can’t you see what he is doing?

"Are you unhappy because of who you are, or because of who you are not? Are you not happy in Starfleet or with Garak?"

Julian stops moving and thinks a bit. He could say all sort of things. Full lies. Full truths. Instead, he settles with a bit of both. He smiles shyly and moves in his chair with a bit of a theatrical stance.

“I love being in Starfleet and being with Garak. I suppose I’m just unhappy with myself.”

“And those things that make you unhappy can be solved?”

“I’d think not. Because I came to be by murdering a small children and replacing him with this.”

"Kill yourself, then." Kelas tone is conversational. He could as well had asked him about the climate.

Garak suddenly gets tense. He wonders if Julian will find his way out of that or he’ll have to intervene. Luckily, Julian just looks confused and doesn’t give Kelas the satisfaction of an angry retort.

“I - what? You’re not a very good doctor, Kelas.” Next time Garak insist I should go to counseling, I’ll make him remember this.

"Or maybe, it is that you are not that certain of what you say, and you just use it as a comforting blanket. So you have a place to put your mistakes. Every time something bad happens, you run to your tragic past, my dear Julian.”

“Are you implying that I claim not to be Jules to justify all my mistakes? That doesn’t even make sense.”

"You are expected to be a perfect superior human being, and yet you are not. But you are not human either. It must hurt."

“I’m not superior and I don’t think of myself as superior! I might be different, but I’m still human. I don’t know why we are still talking about this.”

"You don't like being different.*

“I’m not - I’m not different in the way you’re getting at, Doctor.”

"Are you human then?"

“Yes, I said, I was human before.” Julian lets out an exasperated sound.

"And are you now? Really?"

Garak feels things are calm enough to put his full attention back on Elim. He doesn’t know how much Julian will endure, but it is not the moment to intervene. Not yet. He still needs to keep Elim’s attention on him.

"So you admit you are a prison guard, Elim. How are you better than Dukat?"

“I don’t sleep with them.“

Garak can feel it is not just a remark about Dukat. Oh well, let him think whatever he wants about him and Julian.

"That may be the only difference, my dear Elim. because you still convince them that it is for their best interest to trust you. You are manipulating their already confused minds."

“It is for their best interest. We aren’t going to hurt them or starve them or torture them.”

"Neither are you going to release them. There will always be a war that needs human computers."

“Maybe, but we will not always be a part of those wars.”

"Are you sure about that?"

“No one can be certain of anything.”

"What if Sloan decides to use you in another war?"

“When that day comes it will come.”

Julian tries to keep himself steady and not show how agitated he is. He is sure he is failing miserably. He really was not expecting to ever come across somebody that was actually aware of how an augmentation works. After all, the Federation destroyed all the data. He never had to prepare himself to face people who actually knew how it works, so he couldn’t just convince them with a bit of outrageous fabricated data.

“Yes! I’m human.”

"But are augments are humans, Julian? Have you ever submitted a sample of DNA?"

“I have studied my own DNA thoroughly.”

"And?"

“It was human.”

Elim is not very happy. He was supposed to be the one interrogating, not the other way around
Kelas is about to break Julian, though. Garak wants to break Elim so he can go to Julian before it is too late.

"I thought you were better than me, Elim. Interesting"

“No, I’m afraid we are very much the same.”

"Yet you look at me with such contempt."

“I never said I liked myself. I don’t like either of us.”

"And what about Kelas? You seem rather protective of him, while I'm thinking I’d enjoy interrogating him even more than I enjoyed mine."

“Oh, probably. My Kelas is brilliant. But I’m not sure if you’d be able to stay as the interrogator for too long with him. He’s quite skilled at turning the tables around.”

Kelas grins like a predator and leans so close to Julian he can almost feel his breath. His need to get up and pace is almost unbearable, but he forces himself to stay still.

"Did you submit your own DNA to your federation? Or did you tamper the samples? Come on, Julian, no need to be shy. We all have done things for the sake of surviving. I wouldn’t judge you if you did."

“I didn’t tamper with the samples. They didn’t ask for any.”

That is not true, and Julian is sure the truth it is clear as water on his face. He knew how to tamper with a sample when he was 10. By 15, his skills at manipulating his vitals allowed him to filter blood and present exactly what was needed to at the moment of extraction. And after he got into medical school, things got even easier for him. No, the Federation has not seen a true Julian Bashir sample since he went to Adigeon Prime.

"I find that hard to believe."

“And how would you know? You know nothing about the Federation. You have nothing even remotely similar here.”

"They don't look for the health of their personnel? Not even blood samples? How do they know you are healthy after a mission then?"

“They take blood samples but that’s all! I didn’t - They’re not as invasive as you are.”

"So you never tampered a sample?” Kelas searches on Julian’s face for a while, until the boy gulps. “Curious, Jules is incapable of lying. Must be Garak's influence."

“I’m not lying!”

Julian get ups suddenly and then winces, because this is what Kelas wants. To make him question who and what he is, to do what he’s done to all the others. He wonders if this Jack was always quiet or this was Kelas at work too. Now that he thinks about it, this Jack Pack looks even more damaged than his own.

Kelas chuckles low in his throat.

“He didn’t make you very good at it though. A pity.”

"Julian, come here". Garak is fed up with everything. "You need any more information, Elim, or was this enough?"

"You don't get to decide when your interrogation is finished". Kelas raises his eye ridges, but his smile tells Garak that yes, they have everything they needed.

Julian walks until he is at Garak side, because he is tired and anxious and terrified and he’s not even sure why. Garak gets up and stands at his side, not daring show any more affection than necessary, but trying to block them with his body.

"Gentlemen, I'd you don't mind, I'd like to continue interrogating Elim later. Leave us alone, if you are so kind."

And he grabs Julian's shoulders and walk to the bed without looking at the cardassians, who retire from the room quietly.

Chapter Text

Julian manages to hold it together while Elim and Kelas are still in the room, smiling brittly and holding to Garak like a lifeline. He collapses on the edge of the bed, grabbing Kukalaka, when they leave, what little fight was left in him going out now that there’s not as much need for it. Garak sits down next to him after a moment, tentatively brushing a hand along his thigh.

"I'm proud of you, my dear.”

Julian gives him a look of disbelief, shaking his head back and forth as he falls back onto the mattress.

"Why? I think they took everything they wanted, in the end."

“Because you withstood it without breaking.”

Julian gives him a flat look, the arm not wrapped Kukalaka reaching out so he can lie his hand over Garak’s own.

“Elim. I’m seconds away from crying while hugging a teddy bear, all because someone implied I didn’t fit in. I’d hardly call that not breaking.”

"You didn't break in front of them. You can do it in front of me, you know. I won't judge you, despite of what you think."

“I did! And I’m not - I don’t think you’ll -“ Julian presses his face in his hands, a sound of frustration slipping from his throat at the same time Kukalaka falls to the side. It’s rare to see Julian at such a loss for words. “You wouldn’t understand.”

"It doesn't matter if I understand or not. You don't understand my loyalty to Cardassia either.”

Julian lets out a sound that’s just a bit too watery to be a scoff, shifting a bit on the bed until there’s a space just Garak’s size next to him. Garak takes the unspoken hint and lies down next to Julian, wrapping one arm around his waist carefully. Sometimes Julian’s lack of subtly can be a good thing.

“Yes, I do. I don’t agree with it, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand it.”

"Then why do you hide from me? I won't think less than of you, you know."

“I’m not hiding from you.”

Julian’s voice is almost a whisper as he presses his face into the space between Garak’s neck and shoulder so he can’t see his face. It doesn’t matter. Garak can feel him shaking in his arms.

"But you always crash alone, dear. And I always know. It is ok to feel bad after an interrogation. Come here and tell me what you need.”

“I - we need to talk later. About the things Kelas said about me. About how much you know now and what it might change what you think of me.”

Julian shifts against him so he’s more curled around Garak’s body, head resting on his chest and legs loosely entangled with his own. He’s not shaking anymore, but his face is still wet and gaze too far away from this moment. Kelas did more damage than Garak would’ve liked.

Julian runs his hands over the scales along Garak’s neck and shoulders, touch soft and searching. Garak knows Julian well enough by now to know he’s taking comfort in the familiar lines and texture, even if Julian doesn’t realize it in a conscious manner. He makes soothing noises against his ear, low and syllibiant kardassi sounds that are almost musical, in their way.

He really is proud at how well Julian withstood the interrogation. It couldn’t have been easy, with Kelas knowing all the right places to strike at Julian, all his insecurities. Sloan hadn’t been quite so knowledgeable or so thorough. He may have strained him physically, but he had no leverage when it came to the personal side, and for Julian, physical endurance has never been an issue.

Eventually Julian’s hands still on his shoulder, his breathing having evened out to something acceptable.

“I think I’m okay now.”

"Want to sleep a bit, dear? It could do both of us good."

Garak hopes Julian agrees easily for once. He knows the man is more exhausted than he feels, augmentation nothing compared to the toll of emotions. Thankfully Julian curls up further against him, head coming to rest on his chest.

“I think that does sound like a good idea. Wake me up if they bring lunch.”

Then Julian closes his eyes. It only takes a few seconds before he drifts to sleep, the tension finally leaving his face. Garak continues doing soothing sounds and doesn't let go of him. Not when he just came so close to losing Julian within himself.

Garak doesn’t move away from Julian until a human - one he doesn’t recognize - walks through the door, setting a tray down wordlessly. He stands, hiding Julian from this unknown person with his body. He leaves without making eye contact, but Garak catalogues his sturdy frame and short cropped red hair, the six freckles on his thumb. He needs to know everyone in this prison.

Julian sits up tiredly and glances first at him, rubbing his eyes a few times. Then his gaze tears on the lunch tray, gaze flicking between it and the door. Garak lets out a low snort and pats the chair next to him. .

"This time don't discuss with me and eat to regain strength, dear."

“Of course. Even I don’t feel like arguing.”

"That must be a new mood for you." Garak’s voice is as dry as the bread that Elim left for him, not quite stale but not as fresh as this morning either. He wonders if that’s to show they failed or that they succeeded more than expected.

Julian gives him a lopsided smile, climbing off the bed and spanning the few feet to his chair. He sits on the edge of it and picks up a slice of toast, carefully raising one eyebrow.

“It is. Though I am curious -“

“A more typical mood.”

“How did you know, before?”

"That you were crying? You are incapable of lying. Also, your eyes get red."

“No, that I crashed. Everyone cries. They’re not the same thing.”

"You are not like everyone."

"That's not an answer, Elim... No, Garak, while we are here." Julian corrects himself with a bit of a shudder, hands tense for a moment as he looks past Garak to the wall separating them from his double.

Julian’s not so naive that he doesn’t know they’re similar. But there are two key differences. Garak has integrity. Elim does not. Garak wants Julian. Elim needs him. Probably as a replace of the broken Jules. He wonders if Jules is the only broken one, and suddenly doubts it. There’s something inherently different from the augments he met on his world, and he doubts it is only because they are in another universe. Something is definitely wrong here.

“No, it’s not, I suppose.”

“Tell me what you think. Normally I like this kind of games but Kelas has tired me out. Speak to me as if I were any human you know.”

"I am not human and neither are you, love. I've known you for years, I always know what are you thinking or feeling. You are easy to read for me.”

Julian stiffens a little, eyes widening in a shock Garak almost can’t believe for a moment. Julian opens and closes his mouth a few times, and then lets out a rueful laugh. He takes Garak’s hand.

“Of course I am. And how unfair, I’ve known you just as long and only now started to figure out how to read you.”

“Strange how you’re such a terrible liar when you wear this mask with such finesse.”

Garak says the words with an airy tone, but his gaze is sharp and sympathetic at the same time. He always knew they would have this conversation someday. He didn’t think it would be in a prison in a parallel universe.

“I’m not being dishonest. This Julian I show to the world is me too.”

"But you are not completely honest either. You don't trust me.”

Julian huffs as his gaze grows wounded. He doesn’t let go of Garak’s hand though.

“I do trust you! It’s not an issue of trust.”

"Then? are you sure you want this conversation right now?"

“I can’t think of a better time for it. It’s not like we can go anywhere.”

"I just don't want to put more pressure on you.”

Julian’s gaze softens for a moment, warm and affectionate, open in a way he usually reserves for the safety of their quarters. Garak squeezes his hand and gives him a small crooked smile. He’d understand, if Julian realized this is not a place for this kind of vulnerability.

“You’re not putting pressure on me. All you’re doing is annoying me.”

"Alright, then. But you were just interrogated, albeit in a very polite way. Even I used to give prisoners a bit of space after that.” Not for the first time, Julian things that should make him more uneasy than it does. Something cardassian must have rubbed on him after so many years. “I've studied every single gesture and expression you make, because I knew from the beginning you were not showing who you really are. And even now, you manage to hide that person from me. As enticing as it is to search for the real you, I also would like you to be honest and just let yourself be this one time."

“Garak. It’s more than that. My genes - most of them come up human, if you stretch the definition enough.”

“I am quite good at that.”

“I’m not. I’ve tried to convince myself for ages that I’m like everyone else, just like Miles and Sisko, save that I can do math a bit faster. Other times I wonder if I’m just like Khan, except my arrogance landed me in medicine instead of megalomania. But the truth is, I’m not like either.”

Julian admits the last part with both pride and regret, shoulders shaking a little. Garak wonders how he can convince him there’s no reason for either. He is strong, he has survived, and he is free to be himself, at least with Garak.

"You act too much around me. I won't say I don't lie to you sometimes -”

“Sometimes?” Julian gives him a lopsided smile.

“Yes, sometimes , but you can always tell when it is not true now. I can tell when you are not you too."

“What do you consider acting? My charm? My witticisms?”

Julian flutters his eyelashes just so and leans closer, playfully. Garak gives him a flat look, though he can’t quite hide the amusement in his gaze.

"Your rehearsed expressions, how you restrain your emotions until you are alone, how you make sure not to move too perfectly.”

“I have to rehearse expressions, Garak. I can’t afford to be caught looking too superior or diagnosing a patient before I’ve talked to them. It frightens people. I ... what, you think I’m more excitable than I am? No, don’t answer.” Garak smiles at that and crooks his head. “But I won’t deny the last one is true. It’s old habit.”

"I'd like to see your true expressions someday, dear. I won't be put off if they are not the right ones."

Julian swallows at those words, gaze sharp even as relief blossoms in his chest. How - why would Garak suspect they might not be ‘right’?

“I think you likely saw several of them when Kelas was interrogating me.”

"And yet still I am here.”

“That will be more reassuring when you actually have somewhere to go. He wasn’t wrong about me, you know. Kelas.”

Julian closes his eyes for a few seconds, the fear and distance, the pity he can imagine in Garak’s eyes coming to vivid life in his mind. Each emotion makes his heart twist in a different way. When he opens his eyes though, none of them are there, Garak’s gaze warm and just a touch bemused.

“That you like to pace? I hate to break it to you dear, but I was well aware. Your boots aren’t exactly silent when someone’s trying to sneak into your quarters. You stop just one second before I enter.”

“No, not about that. About me not being human. Being a genetic anomaly, a... dead end.”

Julian averts his eyes, hoping Garak understand the full meaning of that.

“So?”

That’s not what he was expecting. He imagined there would be an attempt to deny that, to sooth him, a demand for further explanation, maybe solutions, a “we will think of something to change things”. Instead, there’s an acceptance that seems impossible for him.

“What to you mean, ‘so’? I’m telling you I was made to be such a thing that I don’t even belong to a species! We can only be bred on a lab. No species is like that except the Jem'hadar and the vorta. What does it say about me?”

“You are human, or most of you are, as I recall.”

“Not enough.”

“Enough for what?”

And then he realizes he has not the answer for that. He bites the bread and makes a face.

“This is horrible, Garak. Even worse than Quark’s food.”

“I agree with you. Our captors seem to think the best food should be reserved for interrogations, apparently. Quite an interesting philosophical stance, if you think about it.”

“I don’t know about you, but I could very well eat a bit more of those scones from breakfast. You didn’t happen to snatch some, did you?”

And Garak puts his most innocent face and takes some out of his pocket. Julian attacks them with desperation and Garak chuckles.

“You knew, didn’t you?”

“Augmented attention to detail. I see far too many things for my own good.”

“No wonder you crash.”

Julian gulps a scone and takes air before answering, with a bit of a playful tone.

“It can tire me, yes. Mostly because I have to pretend not to. It’s easier to be with you than with my friends sometimes, you know. You are trained to see even more things than I do, and you don’t push them to the back of your head as a normal human would do, so I can just act as if I’m trying to keep your rhythm.”

Julian bites the last scone, deep in thought. He knows he’ll face this all when they’re back on Deep Space Nine. For now who - or what - he is can’t be, isn’t important. What’s important is that he and Garak make it home.

Julian doesn’t speak for several minutes while he considers their options. Finally, he gets up and goes to the door, humming a bit under his breath.

“Garak, give me the scrambler.”

“Dear, you seem to think I have magic pockets.”

Garak produces one from the back of his coat. Julian gives him a lopsided smile and starts working on the door. Garak goes to the bed, grabs Kukalaka and safely tugs him into his pocket. It seems unlikely, but the bear fits perfectly inside, not even making a protuberance to disrupt the fit of the garment. Julian wonders if there’s some sort of Cardassian trick to make them bigger than they seem.

“I saw you steal Elim’s one when he was leaving.”

“Such an ugly word, my love. I prefer to think I borrowed it, even if I have no intention of giving it back.”

“Seems fair. There, door open. Did you steal a phaser, as well?”

“Sadly no, but I may have downloaded a map and know the way to the armory.”

Garak smiles a little, small and just a touch delighted with himself, even though his gaze remains stern. He takes a few steps toward the door and takes a deep breath. Either freedom or an eternity here waits for them.

“Lead the way, then, my dear tailor.”

Garak takes his hand and they walk out of the room.

Chapter Text

Julian and Garak run through the corridors, as silent and stealthy as possible, using a modified medical tricorder to display the map Garak downloaded. First of all he wants weapons. For once, Julian agrees with him, and wonders if the other augments know how to use a phaser. Not only can he not leave them alone there, the truth is, Kelas was right. He is not a perfect augment, and his brain just can’t calculate all the variables needed for them to cross over.

Julian really hopes the pack will help them understand what happened, and how to make it work again. If they refuse to help them, it could be years before he managed to get him and Garak to the other side, and at the present, he is not sure they have even hours.

The station is almost empty, but they see guards at the door of the armory. Garak makes gestures for Julian to follow. Not for the first time, Julian wonders when violence stopped making him feel uneasy, but soon gets his mind to the task ahead, because they somehow need to reduce 4 armed men with their bare hands.

The first two fall quite fast, before they have time to realize what is happening. While Julian puts his effort in avoiding damaging them, there is a distinctive snap from Garak’s side that makes him distract and look away. He knows a broken neck when he hears one. And then...

“Julian!”

Garak pushes him hard to the side and the smell of burnt skin makes Julian want to vomit. He grabs a phaser, disables both guards not caring to look for the setting, and gets Garak inside to see the damage.

“Garak, I need to look at it.”

“Grab weapons first.”

Garak is pressing at his arm and his teeth are gritted. The amount of blood flowing between his fingers tells Julian the injury is bad.

“Go hide the guards, Julian.”

“But...”

“First that. You can check on me later. The alarms are already glaring, we can’t risk the guards being found.”

“You are lucky I am still a bit stronger than a normal human. Those men seemed quite heavy.”

Garak smiles weakly and waits until Julian returns, with a dark expression in his eyes.

“Job done?”

Julian’s expression tell him that not only is it done, but those men will not be healed but buried. Once again, the doctor will have to deal with the fact that he ended with blood in his hands.

Alarms are sounding more and more strong now.

“Yes, but we need to do something about your arm now. I’ll grab phasers but you won’t be able to fire unless we get to the infirmary.”

"Love, I can manage until we get to a ship. We can't lose time patching me up!"

"Garak, you will die from bleeding if we don't stop this."

"But -"

"Damn you, Garak, I can tell how deep the injury is! Your bone is shattered in several pieces because of the force of the blast, you have a hole in your arm, and blood loss will render you unconscious in about 20 minutes, give or take. From that point, you’ll be dead in about an hour."

"Then you should leave me. The priority is getting you as far away as possible."

Garak can’t sweat like a human, but the fact that his scales are getting paler tells Julian the situation will get bad maybe even faster than he expected.

“Never. It’s both of us or neither.”

"It is you who they want. I am of no importance for Elim or Kelas."

“You’re of importance to me. I’m not going to leave you here to die, love.”

“Very well, but you won’t go alone. We both walk to the infirmary. You drag me if you have to, but you won’t enter on your own.”

Julian rips his shirt to improvise a bandage and a sling is lit sling? You know, the thing to support your arm. That’s the only word I found in the translator and once he is certain Garak’s arm will resist, he helps get him up and walks as fast as he can. The infirmary is not far but every step seems harder and harder on Garak. He trips every few steps and Julian has to support him. His scales are getting white and not even with the sling his arm is completely immobilized, so Garak grits his teeth with every movement. He know he will lose consciousness soon.

They hear noises again and get inside a room, fast. The infirmary is just around the corner, but there are guards outside and only Julian is able to fight as things are now. To make things worse, the room is very small, and Garak’s breath starts coming even more raggedly than before.

The guards come close to the door, and one pulls it open. Julian hits him in the head with the back of his phaser, and he falls to the ground. Julian bites his lip and stares down at him, wondering if he’ll live if he doesn’t do something. He may be used to violence, but still he can’t help the gut wrenching feeling every time he has to hurt another living being.

Suddenly he finds the other guard pointing a phaser to his face.

"Not a time to be a doctor, Julian, I'm afraid." Garak sighs. That moment of compassion sold them out.

Julian swallows tightly and makes eye contact with the other guard and takes a deep breath.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

"Drop your weapon and come with me, then."

"I need to go to the infirmary first."

Garak decides to attack. He feels extremely weak but if he has to count on Julian, both will be dead. He bites the guard with all the strength he has left and is slapped, falling to the ground on the side of his injury. He shouts from the pain and twists on himself, but Julian takes the cue to fire his phaser. This time, again he has no idea if the setting was stun or kill, but he doesn’t care.

The wound is even worse now. There's no chance of him getting to the infirmary walking. Garak is almost unconscious and wakes up only when Julian shakes him. The human tries to carry him for a moment and Garak weakly raises his eye ridges in disbelief. He will have to go alone or leave him behind.

Julian kisses him on the cheek and makes an apologetic face.

“I’ll be back soon, darling.”

This is bad. Until now, they had managed to stay together. There's a real chance for him to die from the blood lost at this moment.

Julian hurries there and luckily he memorized the layout from their tests long enough to grab what he needs and an extra tricorder, just in case. He can’t remember when was the last time he worked so fast and with such panic.

He gets back and finds Garak breathing heavily, but at least still alive. He works fast and precise. He won't patch him perfectly since they couldn't get to the infirmary and he has no replicated blood, but at least the pain and the wound will be mostly gone.

When Garak finally snaps out of his delirious state, Julian gives him a shaky smile. He knows how close he was to losing him.

“There, almost as good as new. Now that our delightful detour is over, we need to keep moving.”

“Don’t try and be a doctor again.” Garak warns him in a tight voice as he glides to his feet, gaze careful as he glances around the hallway. His head pounds, probably because of the loss of blood, but he knows he can’t stop.

"I'll try and be more cardassian then. Come, we need to get to the other augments."

"I don’t think that is a possibility now. And we need to escape."

"Precisely. I can't calculate the universe switch on my own."

“Really, there’s no chance of you doing it, love?” He knows the answer even before asking the question, but still he fears they won’t be able to get them and leave that damn station.

“Imperfect augment, remember? I think it would take me at least years to get it right.”

"More perfect than those ones we saw."

"Yes, I was wondering about that."

“Why?”

“They shouldn’t be worse. The technology used to make me and them was the same. This is further tampering of some kind.”

"You think they tried to make them smarter?"

"Or fix what landed them in the Institute."

“So you’re saying this is what you’d have become -“

“No, not at the institute. Not exactly, anyway. There’s something else and I can’t quite put my finger on it. We need to keep moving.”

They enter the room but immediately Sarina grabs Garak’s arms, pinning him to the wall with one hand. They had hoped to enter without them noticing, but of course their hearing is even better than Julian’s. They all gather around, while Sarina uses her free hand to press against Garak’s throat.

“I don’t trust you, you... you double.”

"And is that my fault, dear?" Garak signals to Julian with his head. Don't let them alert Elim.

Julian inches toward the control panel and starts disconnecting it without looking. He knew those extension classes would come in handy someday. To think he was about to take languages instead of engineering.

"What are you touching?" Suddenly he has Lauren breathing on his neck. She may look delicate, but he is not sure she is not actually stronger than he is. It was said Khan-era augments were 5 times stronger than human beings, and clearly that was never true for Julian.

He tries to stay calm and give her his most convincing gaze.

“Just feeling the wall.”

She tugs his arm and makes him turn around, but not before he pulls the last wire. Definitely stronger. Still, he is sure Elim and Kelas expected them to go to the augments. If they are not here, something is very wrong.

"I don't believe you."

“Well, that’s unfortunate for me. But I’m not a good liar so it was bound to happen.”

“Yes, that’s clear, sugar.”

"Before doing to us whatever you plan on doing, will you at least listen to what I have to say? And stop pressing Garak’s throat, since he seems about to pass out."

Sarina eases a bit her grip and Garak’s breath comes out strained. Lauren leans in and looks at Julian in the eyes for several seconds, before straightening again with a serious expression.

“Yes, I will. I might not trust the doctor’s twin over there, but I trust you. You seem sweet.”

Julian inhales, knowing this is a long shot. They may not believe him but he needs them to. Otherwise they may need years to cross again.

“I want to help all of you escape too, to find some refuge where you are free to truly be yourselves and not just held by madmen. You deserve to escape here as much - no, more - than we do. But none of us can be free unless we work together to recreate the circumstances that brought Garak and I here and steal some runabouts.”

"But I like it here. The professors take care of us." Sarina crosses her arms. At least she lets go of Garak to do so, who goes guard the door, keeping his eyes fixed on her.

"The outside is scary", says Lauren.

"And we don't know how to work in anything else", Patrick states calmly.

“You can learn. They didn’t take that away from you. They don’t keep you safe, they keep you away from reaching your full potential for anything. And the outside might be scary, but everything good in this world is!”

"We need the treatments. We would die otherwise." Jules intervenes for the first time. He is sitting on the floor, drawing on a pad and not really looking at them.

Julian stops his tirade. That doesn’t make any sense.

"What treatments?"

"The ones to keep our augmentation in check. Sloan designed them to keep us alive." Jules looks at him with surprise, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“That’s not how they work, at least not in my world. I don’t need treatments for anything. Wha -?”

Garak gets suddenly suspicious.

"Love, analyse them. Now."

Julian takes out his tricoder and gets pale at the readings. He feels sick. Suddenly he realizes he misunderstood everything. They didn’t need him as a replacement.

"These are nanoprobes.”

They needed him as a borg queen.

“There are aborg nanoprobes in their blood, Garak.”

A control.

The center of an augmented collective.

“What are nanoprobes? Are those good?” Patrick comes closer and tries to read the values, frowning.

It was not an interrogation. It was a test of his mind. To find if he was worthy or not. If he was strong enough.

Suddenly Julian understands everything. He looks at them with wide eyes. He feels he can barely breath and his head feels light.

“You’re blending into each other. That’s why you are not as the ones I know.”

Their minds are pouring into each other.

Feelings.

Thoughts.

They are not individuals anymore.

Maybe they have not been for years.

“Can you remove them, love?” Garak peers over his shoulder too.

"I don't want them removed, Julian. I like myself". Sarina pouts. Definitely now Julian can see her channeling Lauren. Everything makes sense now.

"I never heard of nanotechnology. I won't do anything until you explain it to us. I’d like to analyse them as well." This Patrick is a verbal version of Sarina, they now realize. Rational, soft, level-headed.

Julian sighs and shakes his head a little.

“I can explain to you what they are once we are safe.”

“I said I like who I am, Julian!” Sarina is getting hysterical. Is that Jack, perhaps?

“You’ll like yourself better if you can be who you really are. This technology is messing with your heads.”

"I don't know how to read those figures. How can I know what you say is true?" Patrick is curious.

"You never encountered the borg before?"

It makes sense, in a way. If the Federation doesn’t exist, there was never that first encounter. Maybe they are still in the Delta Quadrant. For once, this bleak universe has one advantage over their own.

"What are they? Another race?" Sarina plays with the tricorder. It makes noises while she presses all the buttons. Is it Sarina or it is Jack the one who is pressing them? Suddenly Julian is not sure anymore.

“They are a collective of assimilated species. They are not a race, nobody knows how they looked at the beginning. They are forced to share a hive mind, not having individuality. All their thoughts, feelings and memories are shared amongst all the members of the collective. It is one of the most horrifying fates anybody could have.”

“Sounds interesting. I could have all your knowledge, Julian.” Jules doesn’t seem as scared as Julian thinks he should be.

“And I could know all about your past conquests.” Of course this Sarina would be interested in that. She rubs herself on his arm and he takes a step to the back.

“You don’t understand. It would not be voluntary. It never is. The borg force you, use you, dismember and discard you once you can’t work anymore. You are slaves and you don’t even have power over your thoughts. At the end, not even your body is yours anymore because they’ve tampered with it so much there’s little flesh left.”

They all get silent after that.

"I have murmurs in my mind. Thoughts that are not mine. Dreams of things I never was." Lauren is pensive. “Are they theirs?”

"They are not bad things, Lauren! I dream of being Jack all the time!" Sarina is still stubborn. Maybe that's Jules in her.

Julian shakes his head a little with a small smile.

“I know how scary this must be for you all, but I’m not lying. And if we don’t do something then...” Julian debates the blunt truth for a few seconds and then decides to just tell them. “Chances are they’ll murder Garak and plug you all into me, and then use all our combined knowledge to do who knows what. Making a borg Queen is scary, gruesome and may kill some of you if I’m not able to control you. And you don’t want me in your dreams, Sarina.”

"Why would that be bad? We would never be alone again, then." Lauren sounds almost pleading.

"You would not be able to decide for yourself again, Lauren." Julian feels about to get desperate.

"I already am not, Julian. I haven't decided anything more important than what to eat or my nail’s color in my whole life."

“Wouldn’t you like to?”

Patrick frowns a bit and raises an eyebrow. He clears his throat before speaking.

“But wouldn’t that be better since Julian is relatively nice? He could keep Sloan at bay. He clearly is more stable than we are.”

"I wouldn't trust myself with power, Patrick. And I don't want to control anybody. I just want to be a doctor."

Julian is internally very stunned that he misunderstood so much. All his brilliance and he was so far from the mark. How stupid of him, to just think they wanted to replace Jules as a human computer! He couldn’t even imagine what the plans for him really were. Garak is not surprised, though. He knows he wouldn’t work in something unless the stakes were really high, and that applies to his double. And he knew they had no way of knowing the endgame, with what little information they had on their hands. He has always been a master of obfuscation, no matter the universe he is in.

“Oh. But doctors have power.”

"But they use it to heal, Patrick! And they have a captain or a commander above them. I just... I don't want to be inside anybody's head."

"It is not so bad. I like them." Jack says timidly. When they all turn to look at him he backs, slightly terrified. His teary eyes remind Julian to his Patrick’s.

“You don’t - it would be terrible for me. I’m not - I was raised in a different world. That makes me both more and less stable than any of you. And I would hate to be borgified. I’ve read the reports. The first of us who was assimilated lost his eye. My captain lost his wife.”

"You don't like us, Julian?" Sarina smiles teasingly, but she understands what he's trying to say. She nods at him. "How can we help, then?"

"We need to get as far as possible from here, and then we both have to cross. First we need to determine our vibrational rate so we can pinpoint my universe."

“Of course. We’ll take you to the lab. It’s in the back corner, where Jules is.”

"Should we fear the professors will come? There's a red alert after all. The fact that they are not even here is making me nervous."

"I’ll take the systems down", says Jack quietly. "I am the best at that."

Soon the professors get inside, followed by several guards. The research is half done, and the vibrational rate varies so much according to who calculated it they can’t trust the results. At least Jack and Sarina got most systems down.

“Seems like we have a lot of humans in here, Kelas.” Elim’s voice is sweet.

Julian immediately moves in front of Sarina to protect her and then remembers he’s actually definitely the weakest person in the room. But then Jules has an idea.

“Lights out, Jack. Now.”

All the augments can see in the dark. Julian grabs Garak's left arm, Jules the right, and they all run as fast as they can, away from the professors. Patrick grabs their work in a hurry, so they don’t have to start from scratch.

In any other moment, Garak would have had all sort of feelings about having two Julians, but as it is, he needs to concentrate. He already feels a bit lightheaded from the blood loss. He hopes they really know where they are going, because his eyes are useless.

They know where the hangar is, but it is indeed far and they know the professors have access to the transporters. They decide to hide in a room to catch their breath again. Jack silently connects the lights only for it.

Julian immediately starts working on the calculations again with Sarina. He raises his head suddenly.

“Jack, can you hack?”

"Tell me what." He seems more confident than before, even if his personality is not the one Julian knew.

“Lock the door. We need some time.”

Lauren is guarding the door with Garak. Julian lends her his phaser reluctantly, but he is sure she is a better shot than he is. He is not even ashamed to admit they are better than him in almost everything. As Kelas said, he doesn’t belong anywhere. He is better than a human, but not as much as these augments. Why they still want him as a queen (or king, in his case) is beyond his imagination.

They need to finish calculating their resonance. They can't cross without the reference, and it still seems to be eluding them.

They can hear the noises in the distance. The professors are searching for them. With armed guards. The fact that they have not found them talks about how they actually want them to calculate, or perhaps to run in terror. Julian won’t try to guess their endgame anymore.

They are plugging away at the calculations and that part at least is going well. Lauren and Garak are both nervous.

Lauren glances at them and back to the door.

“Would you trust him with power?”

“No.”

“I thought he was your companion.”

“I don’t trust anyone with power. I simply try to guide him in the right direction.”

"But don't you think he would guide us better? He is one of us but he has experience. He's been outside."

“I think that could be true, but I’m selfish enough not to want to find out. He doesn’t belong here."

Julian sighs. This is going nowhere. They need to input the values to a runabout. But first he needs to get them away from here.

"Garak, Lauren, we can't do anything else from here. We will have to risk going to the hangar. We need a runabout."

Julian has all the equation in his mind. He believes they will be able cross, once they are secure.

Garak nods and lets out a small sigh, giving him a crooked smile.

“If only we could breath in space. They couldn’t augment that quality into all of you, could they?”

"Then we'd have to leave you behind, my love. And I promised I wouldn't do it, remember?"

They run through the dark passages again, guiding Garak.

They are about to board the runabout when the lights suddenly get back on.

From one side comes Sloan, and from the other, the professors. There are at least 20 guards.

They are surrounded.

"Drop your weapons. You are outnumbered and I think we could kill at least two or three of you before you get to the ship." Sloan is calm, and his smile sends shivers through Julian’s spine.

They all look at each other and Garak swears under his breath.

"Sarina, do as he says". Garak knows a real threat when it is in front of him. There’s no way they will all come out of this alive.


Chapter Text

“Julian, can you please come over here?”

Sloan looks at him with a sweet smile and Julian shivers. He looks at him and notices something is different to his own Sloan. Scars all over his face. His hair doesn’t seem real. He suddenly realizes this is not the first time they try to get someone to control their little collective.

“I’d rather not, if that is ok with you, Luther .”

Now that Sloan is walking towards him, he can see the scarring is extensive. Julian is not sympathetic. He can’t imagine something more evil than what they are doing with the augments. He had no direct experience with Borgs until now, but he knows enough. He read the reports, saw the pictures. He watched Picard’s debriefing after his assimilation. He saw the reports on Borgs taking off his eye and profanating his body while he was unable to move. He knows what they are trying to do to him.

“I’m not asking, Julian.”

“It won’t work, you know. I’m not an augment like them, even Kelas said I am a failure.”

Buy time, Julian.

Until now, the borg had only been a distant nightmare and suddenly he is in the middle of it, unprepared for what it is to come.

"I’d say you are quite the opposite. We can't use a full augment, it would be too strong and too unstable. We needed somebody human enough."

“So you think. It doesn’t seem like your science has worked in the past. Did it hurt, Sloan? Does still hurt?”

He inches toward the runabout but he is not stupid. He knows he won’t be able to protect everybody and board it. Some distant voice in his brain tells him death would be better than what could happen if he stays.

"Only because neither of us had enough capacity to control them. You have. Your brain is flexible as a human one, but faster, like theirs. You could be the best queen.... Sorry, king, that the galaxy ever saw."

Kelas walks towards him.

"We have the Royal Protocol. We know how to make a collective." Kelas is calm, but his eyes are shining. “Does your Federation know about the Protocol, Julian? It’s full scope? It activates immediately if the Queen dies, but there are other ways of making it come into action.”

Julian smirks brightly and takes a few steps back on the side of the runabout.

“You forgot one thing.”

And then he starts collapsing in on himself bit by bit. Garak takes a second to realize what he’s doing.

He's trying to commit suicide.

He’s shutting down his vital signs. He starts seeing red and his throat is so tight the air stops passing.

For an eternal moment he wonders if Garak will ever forgive him. He won’t be the borg Queen. He’d rather die. He hopes he’ll be able to understand the sacrifice he’s willing to do.

It is not even painful.

He feels peace.

And then Sloan runs. He is faster than Garak, that is still weak from the bloodlost. He jumps over Julian and injects him nanoprobes, forcing him to revive.

Julian gasps for air, terrified. His eyes open wide and his fists hit the air in a spasm. He was never unable to control his vitals before, but he can’t force himself to keep shutting. Something inside him is reviving him.

Changing.

Rewriting.

Rewiring.

Two guards are holding Garak, who shouts and thrashes, trying to reach him. Julian is barely aware of his surroundings. His blood is fire.

He shakes and cries out, trying to reach for Garak as much as he can from where he lies on the floor. The pain is sharp and he is terrified thinking implants may burst out of his skin at any moment.

Garak tries to shake them, desperate. The other augments are all in a corner, terrified under Elim’s gaze.

"At least let me go with him! I'm not even armed!" Garak feels his barely fixed arm hurt again but he can’t care about it.

Julian tries to use what energy he has to fight back. He can’t - he won’t become this.

Sloan makes a dismissive gesture.

"Let him go. We need somebody to carry Julian, after all. I doubt he’ll be able to walk for a few hours."

Kelas smiles too nicely and laughs a bit as he helps Garak take Julian in his arms. Garak kneels at his side and tries to calm him, rocking him lightly. Kelas looks at them from above.

“My little Julian, you know you’re not strong enough to fight any of us. You’re barely strong enough to be the King.”

The 5 augments are terrified. Garak suspects they are sensing Julian and all their sense of self is shattered. They were already in their way to become borgs, and maybe his is the last push to make them stop being separate entities.

Julian is scratching at his face and Garak’s not sure what he’s doing at first, but then realizes he’s trying to rip out his skin. He catches his hands and whispers in kardassi to calm him.

"Fight this, Julian. Focus."

"It hurts. Burns. It is crawling on my skin, Garak!"

“I know, but you have to fight it. We’re almost home.”

“Too much.” He shakes his head, desperate. “I can’t even focus my eyes.”

"Our only hope is for you to fight it, Julian. I'll die if you don't. We all will."

"it's burning my skin, Garak. I can’t!”

“You have to fight!”

“I’m not strong enough!”

He grabs Julian's face and forces him to look at him.

"You don't have a choice."

Julian stills suddenly and his voice is ice.

“You know I do.”

"Not anymore. The probes will keep you alive."

“But - we can’t - we’ve already lost then.”

"Not yet. Julian!"

“Snap my neck, Garak.”

Garak face turns white. He knows what is right. He knows he’d bomb the station with Julian inside. He just can’t bear doing it with his bare hands.

Sloan makes a gesture to the guards and they find themselves surrounded again.

"Take them to their rooms, please. And this time make sure to change the passwords."

Garak dismisses the guards and carries Julian himself.

“We know the way, gentlemen.” Julian winces and curls into his arms and lets out low grunts of pain. "Fight this. You defeated our Sloan before."

“He didn’t put nanoprobes in my brain.”

"They will murder me and plug the augments to you, Julian."

"I was committing suicide. My energy is drained already." He moans and tries to scratch at his face again. He feels something metallic and stills. He needs desperately to see it, see what he is becoming. “Garak, he... he’s going to plug them into me. I’m going to be the mindless borg King, only valuable for the ways in which I wasn’t good enough.”

Garak is about to say now isn’t the time for self-pity, but he realizes that Julian is trying to provide a distraction and maybe a hint to the other augments.

Julian looks at the others, walking at his side with uncertain expressions.

"Do you feel them already, love?"

“I can feel all of them. They’re all so wonderful and skilled. It won’t be so bad, being with them.” Julian makes a pointed expression as he hugs Garak’s arm. He leans closer to Lauren, who flinches nervously. “We can accomplish so much together, with Elim’s and Kelas’ help, of course.”

Garak hears the other augments steps get uneven, uncertain. Suddenly the idea of never being alone is not so tempting. Now they know who their king is.

"And your individuality?" He whispers and Julian does the same.

“It’s going to go away unless we all act fast to keep what we can.” He raises his voice again. "But they are already damaged, Garak. Look at them, they don't even know who they are anymore!"

Julian glances at all of them and touches Sarina on the cheek lightly.

“You know who you are, don’t you? We are one.”

Sarina suddenly thrashes and gets away.

"Don't touch me! I hate your brain! So much... Blood. War... I want it out!"

She grabs Lauren's arm. Julian flinches a bit and nods. He is losing the fight and he knows it. He hopes they understood and will try to fight with him, because he doubts he’ll remain himself for much longer.

“Yes, yes. Too much blood. We need to get away.”

Garak notices a new implant in his face, slowly puncturing his skin.

They leave the augments in a room, but lead Garak and Julian to another, their old room.

"You won’t need to be in the same place after all", chuckles Sloan. “We’d like to test how you communicate, after all.”

“But - But can’t we be?” Julian asks softly as he wraps his arms around his legs as Garak deposits him in the bed. He can’t tell if this is the others leaking in or a delay tactic. Julian is more and more erratic.

“Soon, king.” Sloan makes a mocking reverence and leaves them, but Garak knows he can't trust not to have cameras in their room now. He wonders if Elim knows so many languages as they do. He wonders is Julian will even be able to understand if he tries to communicate in a different  one now.

"Julian, look at me."

Julian turns his head slowly. His eyes are glassy and he shivers.

"They are all here, Garak. It is too strong. It hurts too much."

Garak takes it as a good sign he can communicate but now he’s more worried than before.

“You have to hold on to yourself, Julian. Focus on me. Focus on escape.”

"We... We can. I can talk to them now. I can order them to come."

“Yes. Yes, you can. Talk to them. Focus on our goal.”

"I... We... We escape. As one. You could be part too. I can make it work. I know how. You’d have all our knowledge, too. We’d be one too."

Garak notices his hair looks thin. He touches it and it falls in some places.

“You’re not a collective. You’re Julian Bashir.”

"We are... We are Julian. They are all mine, Garak." He smiles blissfully.

“No, no they’re not. They are all their own people. You need to remember that if we’re going to escape.”

Julian leans forward a bit. He is still wrapping his legs with his arms, and his skin looks sick. He whispers as if he just had the best idea in the universe.

"I can make it work. I can escape. I can call them."

“Do it. Do it and we’ll figure it out.”

He looks at Garak with a weird expression.

"I feel Sloan was here before. In us. He was small. Couldn't control us and had to flee to avoid being crushed by our minds. We could crush his body too, perhaps." He smiles again and cocks his head to the side.

Garak wonders who is the one leaking violence now. He’s very worried. He takes his hands, trying to force him to retain what little humanity is left.

“While I’m sure that would be a delight for all of us, we need to escape.”

"Yes, I... Can gather all of us, now." He takes a breath and his expression looks a bit less maniac for a second. "I'm fighting. They are too. I... We now know all Sloan tried to do to us... no, to them. The memory was in their minds and he tried to erase it. He brought us here, Garak. He had them calculating not for war, but for our accident. He needed me."

“So you could become this.” Garak says quietly and he tries to swallows his anger and fear at the same time.

“Yes. He needed someone alike but not totally like them. But now we’re all connected and we all know everything. They’re going to break us out in a few minutes. Be ready.”

"We have no weapons."

“We are weapons.”

"But -"

"We are Borg. We will adapt, Garak."

He feels a chill down his spine.

"But I am also Julian."

Garak feels some relief but he’s still very anxious.

“For how long?”

“I don’t know. That’s why we need to act now.”

"Are they willingly merging?"

"No. My mind is too alien for them and my memories too brutal. But they don't know where one ends and the next begins anymore. It is hard to keep them separated from each other. Prepare. They will burst the door. The codes changed so they will just tear it down."

“All right. Where are we going?”

“Back to the hangar.”

"There will be guards. And Sloan is probably waiting for us to escape."

The door opens violently. They all have implants, as Julian, but their eyes are not dead as a borg ones. They are aware for now. Julian smiles as he gestures for them to follow him.

“Yes he is, but he’s underestimated them. That’s his mistake and we’re all benefiting from it.”

Julian and the others start walking quickly down the hallway, gazes carefully searching out guards and cameras. They sometimes say some words of phrases, but they are disconnected, as if they can’t decide to use their connection or their own voices yet.

Garak walks with them. They surround him, but he doesn’t feel threatened. They are protecting him. Suddenly he realizes he is the weakest one.

"Can you at least get a weapon for me, Julian?"

"You are safe with our collective. We won't let them harm you."

“I would still like to be able to protect all of you.”

“We don’t need it. We are strong.”

No way to convince him. He is barely human at this point, and arguing will only make them lose time.

"Alright, Julian, lead the way."

Garak follows them down the hall and tries to keep them inconspicuous until they get back to the hangar bay.

Sloan is waiting for them there, with a beatific smile and arms open. They enter and stop just some steps from him. He walks around, analyzing them. Garak wonders if the man knows the danger he is in. No failsafe can be put into a collective to stop Julian from doing whatever he wants.

"I see you are integrating fine, my dears."

Julian’s head turns in an angle that should not be possible. Garak wonders if it is because of his augmentation or because of the borgs, and realizes it doesn’t matter anymore. Julian’s eyes are cold, alien. They are not his anymore.

"We see what you did and how you connected to our collective before. You will not be a fine addition to it. You will not add to our perfection."

“That’s why I went and found Julian for all of you. So you could be ruled by someone worthy.”

“I will not allow you to keep on using us - I - them this way. We have to remove you, for the good of the collective.”

"I thought you were a doctor and you didn't like violence, Julian."

"You don't know my universe, and you don't know us as well as you think."

He caressed Julian’s cheek, stopping to touch the implant.

“I think I know you pretty well. Idealistic and rigid. You don’t have the guts to do what’s necessary and -“

That’s when Sarina grabs him, and Jack and Julian walk around him like sharks. There’s no sign of the others. She talks with Julian’s accent.

“Garak said that to me too once. I shot him at an exact place to not hit any major arteries. But our aim’s gotten worse. Where will we snap you?”

He tries to break free from her and suddenly his eyes fill with fear.

"You are not killers. You have been here your whole life. I have nurtured you, educated you, made sure you were safe. You are not killers!"

"Not all of us, perhaps. Some might. And we are one now." Jack gets closer.

“Jack, don’t let Julian influence you. He’s not - he can be tamed.”

Julian smiles brightly and tilts his head a little as he leans in. He studies Sloan as someone would inspect a fruit before deciding whether to eat it or throw it away.

“Better men than you have tried. We are dangerous.”

Garak would gladly kill Sloan but he knows what will that do to Julian if he commits the crime himself. He fears he won’t be able to go back to himself if he crosses that line now.

"Love, don't kill him. Disable him and we can go. It is not our priority."

Jack turns to him, with a serene expression and his hands in his back. Garak knows that stance. He’d used it several times, just before killing somebody.

"Don't you see? We all want revenge for our last years."

Julian doesn’t even turn to watch. Probably he doesn’t need to do it anymore.

“Right, right. We will do that. Sarina and Jack, if we’d be so kind.”

And Sarina moves with a surprising quickness and suddenly has him by the throat. Jack peeps from behind, putting his chin in his shoulder.

Garak shakes his head nervously and swallows a little.

“Don’t play with him. Disable him now.”

"That's what we are doing."

Lauren and Patrick come back with Elim and Kelas. Jules is walking in front of them with a couple phasers in his hands.

"Found some rodents. Or snakes, perhaps."

“Good, we need to disable them too. Put them in a pile.”

Patrick knocks Kelas out and lies him on the ground carefully. Elim looks at his former alumni with panic in his eyes and sits in silence.

“Doctor skills do help with unruly patients. Nice being Julian for a change.”

Garak stands in front of Julian, grabbing his arms.

"Remember who you are. You will regret it later."

"We won't. We are Borg."

“No, you are Julian Bashir. Doctor and a compassionate man. You are an individual. Look at me.”

And Julian takes a few deep breaths and Sarina suddenly lets go of Sloan so he drops on the floor, unconscious but alive.

“We need to go, Julian, now.”

Julian takes some deep breaths. The augments all move at unison, destroying circuits and disabling most of the station. They disable all runabouts except one.

"Follow us, Garak."

“Of course, my dear.” And then only Julian and Garak climb into the runabout. Julian stops in the doorway.

“All of us are going in, right?”

“You know we can’t.” Jules looks at him sadly.

“You can’t take us with you.” Lauren looks at him and smiles. This time she looks like herself, even with the implants on her face.

Julian thrashes, trying to get out, and Garak has to keep him in place. He turns, furious.

“But they’re me.”

"No. You are individuals. You promised to fight."

"We are Borg. I'm their king!"

They start looking confused again. Every moment Julian stops fighting they fall with him. There’s no way they’ll be free as long as he is with them. Garak takes his face in his hands.

"You are Julian. Look me in the eye!"

“No, I’m the king. We’re the borg - we’re not - I’m not - Garak! Please!”

Garak pulls him in the runabout and locks the door.

Julian makes several gasping breaths and spits out numbers at Garak as fast as he can. Garak inputs them without even asking.

“Hurry, I won’t be able to fight much longer. We’re not strong.”

"Perhaps. But they will have to learn to leave on their own.”

“I can't take them with me, you are right. I don't want to..."

He grabs his head, anguished. He doesn't want to leave them on their own but now he has no chance. Separating feels as painful as when the implants burst from his skin. If they had been together just a bit longer, distance would have stopped being a problem.

Garak flies off and recreates the situation as closely as possible, flying towards the space/time continuum anomaly forming ahead of them, invisible, just like the first time. Julian clutches his head tightly and cries out in pain and -

They cross back and Julian collapses. Garak puts autopilot and runs to him but he shakes his head. His eyes are focused for the first time in hours.

"Check the navigation. I will survive."

“All right. Can you still feel them?”

“Not exactly, but I still need some medical care. Quite urgently, I’d daresay.”

Garak nods and takes Kukalaka out of his pocket. He gives him to Julian, who smiles weakly.

"I told you we would all make it back home."

Julian hugs Kukalaka loosely and nods a bit, swallowing tightly.

“You do love being right, don’t you? Once we get home, make sure Doctor Girani fixes my hair first.”

"I think we should remove those nice implants you have in your face first."

Julian puts his hands in his face, with a terrified expression. He had forgotten them. He can’t be seen with that in public.

"Tell me at least I'm not white!"

“No, no, you’re not white yet. Lets get those out of you and we’ll make sure you’re back to looking like yourself soon.”

Julian nods.

"Thank you. Back there... They all wanted blood. It was... Hard. Was it like that at Empok Nor? I just wanted to rip their throats with my hands. I knew we could."

“It was very much like that, my dear. But you were stronger than me. You didn’t do it.”

"Because you stopped me. I would have done it. I still feel the urge. I felt... I was powerful, enraged. I knew we could. There would not even be consequences because we were too strong. We could have assimilated the whole galaxy."

“I know, my love. But we’re home now.”

They fly in silence for some minutes. Julian sighs.

“I ... you wouldn’t be willing to rip the implants off with your hands, would you?”

"They are too deep, love. It would hurt you. You need surgery."

"I don't want to be seen like this. I can’t. You know what would happen if they thought I am a borg."

Garak puts autopilot again and searches the runabout until he finds a cover. He carefully places it around Julian’s shaking shoulders.

“I know, I know. Here. I’ll cover you until we get to the infirmary. It will just be me and Dr. Girani and maybe a nurse or two. We can talk with Sisko and make sure it stays off the record. You don’t have to destroy your career because of a madman from another universe.”

Julian shakes his head and grabs Garak’s hand. He is starting to understand the full scope of his actions.

"I was about to kill them, Garak... No, Elim, again. I never hurt anybody willingly. I am a doctor, I have made an oath! How can I go back now?"

“You have to learn to live with this, love. We can do it together. I know you’re strong enough to survive this. This was not your fault.”

"it's not a matter of being strong. It is about... Adding one more flaw. Now I also have killer instincts, as if I didn’t have enough already."

“You don’t have many flaws to begin with, and I don’t think that urge will stay with you in quite the same way.”

"I think many of them were laid out in front of you just one day ago. You now know why augments failed. And why I’m not even a good augment. I was poorly done."

“Those aren’t flaws. You’re not perfect, no, but you’re wonderful and many of those things are what make you so.”

"I am a Frankenstein creature. I don't belong, I can't make more like me. I'm not enough anything."

“You’re not a monster. You’re a man. A compassionate, brilliant man who isn’t thinking clearly right now.”

"I'm not talking about me as a person. Biologically, I'm a mistake. A mistake that now fears he'll sport Borg markings for the rest of his life. Are you sure you can't rip them off? I won't scream."

Garak sighs. If he won’t be able to convince him to stop hating himself, at least he can try to help him not fear his own face in the mirror. He knows the moment he catches a glimpse of his reflection he will be forever scarred.

“Julian - all right. But this will hurt.”

He tries to remove the smaller one but the skin rips and it doesn't come out. Julian eyes are full of tears but he bites his hand to endure the pain.

"Love, there's no way. You'll have to wait for surgery."

"Try again. Please."

"I won't make you bleed again". Garak's hands are red. He cleans Julian's face with his own blood stained clothes, trying to make the bleeding stop.

Julian weeps bitterly and presses his face into his hands.

“I’m not sure I really came back at all. Not all of me at least.”

"Julian, look at my hands. What do you see when you see this blood?"

“Nothing. That’s the problem. There’s nothing.”

"That’s better than the urge, I'd think."

“The urge to what?”

"All those things you always feared, the cruelty of Khan, the will to conquer. Those were there when you were Borg. Your face scared me."

“How nice of you to say that right now when I’m not sure if my own feelings will come back.”

"I'm saying that, because that bloodlust was never in you. They injected it. You took it from who knows whom, Jack perhaps. You are not as flawed as you believe you are. And you were stronger than I ever was."

“We don’t know that. We don’t know what was lurking under the surface waiting for the right trigger.”

"Your collective is on the other side of the mirror. I don't think you'll fall again."

Julian turns away and closes his eyes, letting Garak talk to a worried Jadzia over the comm system. He informs her that they had a huge accident on their way to Risa, but he needs to be immediately transported to sickbay with Julian, away from anybody’s eyes. She is worried, but understand there must be a reason.

“Can I still go see you, Garak?”

“Yes, you and nobody else. You’ll understand soon enough.”

He hears Julian walk until he sits at his side and cuddles, still under the blanket.

"What if I'm attracted to the borgs of this universe now, Elim? If I call them? You'd have to kill me. Would you? Please?"

“Yes, I suppose I would.”

Chapter Text

Garak awakes more out of instinct than anything else. It takes him a few seconds to realize that what pulled him out of his slumber was Jadzia entering the room. She stands in the doorframe, clearly not sure whether to get inside or not. Garak sighs and gets up from his chair near Julian, going to where she is.

“How is he?” there's concern in her eyes. She was one of the few who saw how extensive the damage was. She has to fight the sudden fear and remember that this is Julian, not a drone. Not anymore.

“Physically? Doctor Gironi managed to remove all his implants. His skin will need at least two more regenerator sessions, but soon he won't have markings.”

“And his mind?”

Garak looks at his sleeping form.

“Still too soon to know.”

“What happened, exactly? He seemed far too scared, I don’t think it was only because of the borg.”

“He was confronted with his darkness. He almost lost. I don't think he'll ever forgive himself for it. He saw what his augmentations can do.”

Julian stirs and Garak immediately is at his side.

“Garak, where...?”

“Home, love.”

“Mirror.”

“Don't you want a glass of water first, maybe something to...?”

“I said mirror.”

Garak searches for one and gives it to him, sighing. Julian's eyes get glassy and his throat bobs.

“You'll need a bit more treatment but soon you'll be back to your normal gorgeous self, don’t you worry about it.”

“I very much doubt it, Elim. The implants...?”

“All removed. No emitter online either. You won't attract borgs here.”

Garak's squeezes his hand, knowing that little consolation is not enough.

“I want to see how I was when I came back.”

Jadzia takes his other hand and sits at his side.

“We didn’t make any pictures, Julian. We couldn't risk them getting into the wrong hands.”

“How... How extensive it was?”

Almost no hair. Skin white as an andorian's locks. Implants all over his body, puncturing the flesh in almost any possible way. And Julian screamed for hours even with the sedatives while they removed them and reconstructed him. If he was not augmented, probably he would have died. No human is meant to survive so much damage.

“Not as extensive as we thought at first, love.”

“Elim.”

“I really expected it to be worse.”

“Don't lie to me. Not again. Not after this. I think I deserve to know the truth.”

He nods.

“You were... You didn't look like yourself when we transported here. I covered you so nobody would see you until the doctor arrived.”

“Would you have done what I asked you to if I was beyond hope?”

“Yes. There are worse things than death.”

Julian nods and gets silent again, each of them grabbing one of his hands.

“Maybe I deserve to be given away to the institute. I was dangerous there.”

“You’re not dangerous now. You’re back to normal”. Jadzia smiles sadly at him.

“There's no normal in me. There never was.”

“So?”

“What?”

“We still want to have you here. We don’t care if you don’t fit your idea of normalcy. You don’t have to.”

“I'm not sure much of me crossed, to be honest.”

Julian keeps looking at his reflection, as if trying to memorize every single scar that soon will not be there anymore.

"Did they keep the... The implants? For research, or anything? I want to see them. I need to see what was on me, Elim. I have glimpses of what the other augments saw when they looked at me, but I need to see with my own eyes."

“No, they destroyed them.”

He doesn’t add that he did. He could not risk somebody asking where did all this come from.

"But... What about learning about the Borg?" If Julian was a bit more like himself he would realise there's something Garak’s not telling him.

“We already know plenty about the Borg.”

"I may have been able to give some insight for the inside...” Julian gulps and shakes his head. “Maybe it was for the best, though. We don't know if they could have reacted to me. Am I... Do I still have nanoprobes in me?"

Jadzia smiles at him sadly.

“No, we removed all of those as well.”

Julian just nods.

"I don't feel totally like myself yet."

“It’s only been a few hours, Julian. Give it time.”

Julian nods and lays down again. He turns his head to Garak.

"Stay here?"

“Of course, until you’re let out or until the nurses chase me away.”

"I gave them orders not to chase you away years ago."

“How thoughtful of you. I always wondered why they shoot knives from their eyes but endured my presence. Now rest and when you wake up things will be a bit better.”

Garak kisses him on the forehead and lets Julian close his eyes and fall asleep.

He keeps holding his hand all night, even when he screams in his sleep and squeezes painfully.

 

Jadzia is already in the shuttle bay when they arrive, carrying their bags and dressed in civilian fashion. Julian hugs her tightly.

"Are you sure they know you'll be arriving soon?"

"Jadzia, we are not children, of course we told them we’re coming."

Garak’s head pops from behind Julian’s shoulder.

"Actually I did. Julian forgot to call."

He knows Julian didn't want Jadzia to know that. Julian huffs and gives Garak a miffed look.

“Well, one of us did and that’s what matters. I’m sorry I’m not quite as perfect as Garak or the people we’re going to help.”

He pokes Garak in the shoulder purposefully. He’s nervous because the other augments might reject him or not want him there but ... all they can do is try.

"It's not about being perfect. It is about having some order in your life, dear. Your sense of time is almost as terrible as your fashion one."

Jadzia smiles at them.

"Get a room, you two. You can't flirt as shamelessly in public, you’ll make me blush. You are a married couple now."

Julian flushes a bit and shakes his head even as he squeezes Garak’s hand a bit.

“Please, you’re just jealous because Worf won’t flirt with you in public at all. Besides, I’m not flirting. I’m rightfully annoyed with Garak for publicly listing my flaws.”

“Then why are you holding his hand?”

"So he won't leave before I can find a good retort to that, of course."

“Yes, of course, dear. I imagine that means you’ll be holding it all the way until we arrive at the institute.”

"Of course. I have so much to tell you about your behaviour. Did you know, Jadzia, he actually has a color plan for the towels? You can't use a green one on Wednesday in our quarters! I never realized I was getting married to such an order freak."

Garak looks at him with raised eyeridges.

“That’s only because you never bothered to ask why every time you visited me the color seemed different.”

Julian playfully bumps his shoulder and shakes his head.

“Anyway, I can’t go in holding your hand. We can’t have the augments figuring out I’m the dumb one until I’ve gained their trust.”

Jadzia smiles at them.

"You'll do fine, Julian. They already like you, and whatever you can do for them will be more than they've ever experienced."

“I suppose. I’m just ... it’s going to be another place I don’t fit and my ego will take a bit of a hit when they all figure out how to handle social situations better than I ever have in a few hours.”

"I doubt they will. They would have done so last time they were there if they were capable of that."

“I didn’t really try, Jadzia, and the only other person who visited them was Miles. He made them cry.”

He is proud of them already. He is sure they will prove to be so much better than anybody gives them credit for in a very short time.

"Yes, I can see why Miles would not be the best example. What about Garak? Didn't you introduce him the last time they were here?"

“No, we were too busy doing science together and I was worried about Garak meeting them at that time.”

Garak’s outraged expression is almost convincing, but his eyes shine far too much.

“That I’d lead them astray?”

"Who knows. I think you led me to all sort of things already, Elim." Julian leans in and kisses the top of his nose.

"Oh, please, not in front of Jadzia. I'm sure she doesn't want to hear that."

"oh, I totally want. And watch too, if you plan on keeping it going."

Julian gulps.

"So, anyway... Thank you, both of you. I know these past months I was not easy. It was hard to decide to go see them after all that happened."

Garak gets serious again, and brushes his cheek lightly.

“My dear, I wouldn’t be much of a husband if I abandoned you when things became complicated. And I can understand why you feel nervous, but you can help them now. You can offer them a life outside the institute.”

"Do you think they'll want to? That's all they know. The ones on the other universe didn’t want to leave."

“Then we can show them how the outside world is and let them make their choice. That’s all we can do, my dear.”

“What if they think I came out worse because I lived out here?”

"Then they would not be as smart as you claim they are."

Julian rolls his eyes and pokes Garak in the chest with his free hand. He turns and hugs Jadzia one last time.

“Goodbye, Jadzia. We’ll see you soon.”

"Have fun and don't do anything I wouldn't do."

“That leaves our options wide open.”

"Precisely."

She blows a kiss to them as the shuttle departs. Julian fiddles with the controls for some minutes, not talking until DS9 is not visible anymore.

“Am I doing the right thing, Elim?”

"Are you really that nervous, love? You know they already like you. They like you no matter which universe you are in."

“Still, I can’t help but wonder what they’ll think of me once they realize that I’m less than them and that I’ve been through something ... wrong. They’ll know, you know. They knew Damar was lying on a screen.”

"They won't judge you as much as you fear, dear. They have met you before after all."

"Such a honeymoon I had in store for you, uh? I'm sure you expected something more romantic. Months caring for me, and when you finally get me to move to your quarters, I drag you into yet another crusade."

“A little bit, but I’m not one for grand romantic cliches anyway. I think this will be far more enjoyable in the long run.”

Julian squeezes Garak’s hand and kisses him.

“We can only hope.”